An Interview with Kia Corthron

Today, we are interviewing author and playwright Kia Corthon in anticipation of her upcoming campus visit to the University of Iowa and her reading at Prairie Lights Bookstore on April 10th.

Kia Corthon is the author of more than fifteen plays produced nationally and internationally, and most recently, an acclaimed new novel The Castle Cross The Magnet Carter. Her awards include a Windham Campbell Prize for Drama, the Simon Great Plains Playwright Award, the USA Jane Addams Fellowship Award, and the Lee Reynolds Award from the League of Professional Theatre Women. She has also written for television, receiving a Writers Guild Outstanding Drama Series Award and an Edgar Award for The Wire

The Castle Cross The Magnet Carter sweeps American history from 1941 to the twenty-first century through the lives of four men: two white brothers from rural Alabama, and two black brothers from small-town Maryland, whose journey culminates in an explosive and devastating encounter between the two families.

She will be reading at 4:00pm on April 10th at Prairie Lights Bookstore in downtown Iowa City. Please join us there!

 

1. Kia, welcome! And thank you for taking the time to speak with us today about The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter. First off, can you tell us about the initial inspiration for this novel which is truly an epic work? Was there a singular image that sparked its birth -- or a phrase, a thought?

I can't tell you! It's the climax! 

But I will say this. Because what I wanted to explore with the book were the events leading up to that climax (and, as it turned out, the ramifications), ninety-five percent of the book was completely unimagined when I started out. I made it up as I went along. Actually I did the same with the forty-page climax, but at least with that I knew where I was headed, whereas with the rest of the book I came to know the characters and their struggles and journeys as I wrote them. I was fortunate to have been afforded time at several writers' retreats in the course of the writing, and I remember vividly at the Hermitage Artist Retreat in Florida the process of spending the day writing the first draft of a chapter, getting into bed, and then the idea would come to me for the next day's chapter which I would start the following morning.

The first draft I wrote longhand, by the way, as I do with plays. I have twenty-something composition books lying around my room from the process. With plays I usually then continue a longhand process, printing out the word-processed version and pencil-editing on the pages, but after it was clear my book was going to be epic, I felt too guilty about tree-murder and started editing on my computer.

2. I’ve been lucky enough to hear you read several times from The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter, and I am always struck by how theatrically you inhabit your characters when reading their voices – it is an extraordinary experience for a listener -- surprising and entirely refreshing. Has your background in playwriting influenced this reading style?

I'm sure it has. I've never been trained as an actress, but I have good theatrical instincts (which drove me to writing plays) and in theatre grad school (Columbia University) I would act in other students' scenes when called upon to do so. I would say the main lesson from the theatre that I've brought to the readings from my novel is dramatic rhythm: I don't fear the pause. 

3. You have worked diligently with social justice issues, both in your fiction and your playwriting career. How do you enter into a relationship with an issue? Do you actively seek out an issue or concern, or are you called – summoned even – to address one?

With some ten-minute plays I have sometimes been "called" - asked to write a short piece to be presented as part of an evening of shorts about a topic. Recently I've been asked to contribute to Break the Wall (breakthewallproject.org), self-described as "a curated online archive of short plays about Israel-Palestine that can be downloaded and performed for free."

But for other shorts and for all my full-length plays, I have "commissioned" myself. Actually I should qualify that: I have had many commissions from theatres over the years, but it was based on their interest in my writing in general, so I was free to write whatever I wished. (Depending on the outcome, they could then decide – or not – to move forward with a production of the written script.) So, whether or not a theatre was involved, I would “commission” myself the topic. I am inspired by the media - Democracy Now! or perhaps The New Yorker or The Nation. Sometimes an exhibit in a museum may spark an idea. Having been driven to address a subject, the next step is research, and through that research I come up with characters to personalize the issue - to present a dramatic journey for the audience.

As I wrote above, the novel began with the climax. It was something I had always known about, but in recent years I was presented with more details that struck me harshly enough that I was compelled to write about it.

I don't write agitprop. I don't have anything against agitprop per se. When I was in grad school, I was briefly part of a group called Art/Work made up of a small coterie of artists - mostly visual artists - led by a middle-aged Palestinian immigrant woman and a middle-aged American Jewish man. The man, I remember, had spent time in Central America during the '80s and, for example, would paint signs (along with the local community) inciting workers to strike. Agitprop: no subtext, just a clear straightforward directive - necessary immediacy. On the other hand, when I'm successful in my craft, the fictional characters of my fictional stories reach people on a more emotional and deeper level, a longer lasting effect. Deeper is not necessarily better: different situations call for different artistic-political approaches.

Lastly, I think it was also back in grad school when I read Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed. What has stayed with me these many, many years was the notion that if an audience member were to leave the theatre feeling so devastated that all she could do was to throw up her hands in despair, then that’s all she would do. If, on the other hand, the audience member was provided with a little hope, then she might actually act upon it. Since reading that book, I have always worked toward that hope. It must be truthful - to fake a happy ending is transparent and silly. So sometimes, with more bleak subject matter, unearthing that sliver of hope has proven exceedingly challenging. But I've always found it.

4. I want to ask a bit more about the characters in the book, who are so ALIVE to me, as a reader. Who was your favorite character when you started writing? And did that change as the story progressed? Also, which character challenged you the most?

There was a very brief period in history where my 800-page tome stood a chance of being a novella! Or at least a normal-sized novel. The breadth is partly because the story covers almost seventy years, but it's also because there are four protagonists. When I first began there was to be only one - I wanted to explore what would lead a person to do what he ultimately does: Where did he come from? How did his life become what it did? But I quickly realized I also wanted to know the story behind the other key person involved in the event, and in dissecting their histories I needed to understand their families, and at last it became a book about brothers. I say "at last" but, truthfully, by the time I stopped thinking about writing a novel and actually opened the first blank notebook and put pen to paper, I knew this much: that I was about to tell the story of two white brothers and two black brothers and how their lives came to intersect.

I learned who the characters were as I wrote them, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter. The vast majority of the book I wrote in chronological order. I kept being surprised. With a seventy-year time span it's no shock that there are deaths, some of old age, some dwelt upon more than others, and one night as I got into bed at that Florida retreat I realized that a character closely related to one of the protagonists was going to die in the next chapter. I imagined things would get pretty intense at the funeral, and I wrote toward that. But, surprising myself again, by the time I finished writing all the drama of the events leading up to the funeral, I realized I'd said everything I needed to say, and ended the chapter just before the funeral, the next chapter jumping in time to a couple of weeks later.

I haven't answered your question yet, have I? Of the four protagonists I don't have a favorite. They are very different men, and I certainly can't say they would all be considered sympathetic characters, but I love them all. Here's a difference I discovered between writing a play and writing a novel, especially an epic novel, as mine turned out to be. (I never planned that.) Let me quote a playwright friend of mine who began writing novels (also epic) years ago: "I can hold an entire play in my head. I can't hold an entire novel." Which is to say, a play, whether it covers two hours or fifty years of a protagonist's life, is a snapshot: it's still only two hours, more or less depending on the play’s running time, of the character's life. With my novel, I felt I had been with my protagonists throughout their entire lives. So, while I have loved many of the characters of my plays, it did not go as deep as my feelings for my novel protagonists. As a matter of fact, I was completely taken unawares one day when I realized I was in love with one of the protagonists of my novel. I did not expect that, and it's never happened with a play! And those feelings manifested themselves not even halfway through the book - and got more intense as I kept writing!

5. We love to ask this question to all our authors: what is your writing process? Are you a daily writer? Do you have a specific time of day when you like to compose, or a weekly schedule? How did you write – and continue writing -- The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter? (Because continuing writing is so essential!)

I don't have a set schedule at all. For plays I go through a period of research that can take weeks, or more, before writing. The next play I've been aiming to write has been a major slow-go, partly because of distractions with the newly released book, and partly because research has been complicated by factors outside of me. Once I do start writing, a play usually starts with a rough outline - this is because I have a natural facility with dialogue and characters but plot proves more challenging, so I usually force myself to start by mapping out the journey of events, which of course often changes later.

The novel, though, was a very different process. I didn't have a plot scheme at all, except for knowing the climax I was headed for, nineteen years in the future from where I started - and because the climax is the one section out of chronological order, I actually create forty-two years of my characters' lives before coming to the place I always knew I would go. The research process was also different. Because I didn't know what would happen until I wrote, research did not precede the writing but instead coincided with it. I had written the initial mess of a very very first draft before I ever read the seminal text Inside Deaf Culture. The next draft incorporated what I learned from that outstanding treatise. B.J., influenced by a deaf cousin I grew up with, is the same person he was before I'd picked up Inside Deaf Culture, but my understanding of the culture greatly enriched his character.

Once I started I obsessively wrote all the time. I knew I could spend my life rewriting Chapter 1 so I made a pact to keep going, not to look back until I got to the last word. (On the morbid front, it helped that, with a family history of shortgevity, I thought if I didn't hot-foot it through there was a good chance I'd never finish.)  I was very fortunate to have secured invitations to several writers' colonies over the time of the first draft. I actually went through three drafts before showing anyone a word: fourteen hundred double-spaced pages in fourteen months. Then I began to share it with my sister (also a writer) and friends, and (good fortune again) met through email a most generous deaf woman (now my friend) who was willing to read my tome. Instead of shrinking, feedback suggestions caused it to swell a hundred more pages - the word count of Anna Karenina. At some point, after securing a book agent (separate from my theatrical agent), I did a five-week stint at the MacDowell Colony which kicked off five months of tedious trimming, ultimately leaving behind twenty percent of the text. I always said it cost me my blood and my sweat but not my tears, as I was very pleased with the result. Trimming the fat I was happy to engage in. A real cut, slashing it down to normal size - I couldn't do it. I knew the book was inherently epic. That awareness was the beginning of the search for the right publisher. Rejection after rejection, or suggestions related to major lacerations or breaking it up into a trilogy. I stubbornly held out, and unhappily resigned myself to the fact that the book may never be seen outside of PDFs to friends, but I believed I would be even more miserable to see a mutilated published version that barely resembled the book I wrote.

And then Seven Stories Press committed. Even with them it took longer than usual - I recently found out the original editor, who no longer works there, was very negative about the manuscript - majorly bad-mouthing it to the rest to of the staff! Presumably owing to the advocacy of another of their writers (a friend I’d recently met in a sign language class, who had originally brought them the book), the novel miraculously found itself in the hands of their primary editor who fell in love with it and who truly understood it in all its massiveness. I'm aware of how rare such second chances are. And everyone on the staff has been wonderful. So I would say it's important to continue writing and, unless you're lucky enough to have the right publisher snatch up your pages at first glance, to continue waiting until you have found the right place, or the right place finds you. I have no idea what's going to happen with sales, but I do know that from the title to the cover to the eight hundred pages, Seven Stories made sure it was the book I had wanted to publish. For me, that's a happy ending.

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Thank you Kia!

Kia Corthron will be reading at 4:00pm on April 10th at Prairie Lights Bookstore in downtown Iowa City: Kia Corthon, 4pm, April 10th, Live from Prairie Lights

 

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