Q & A with Author Kathleen West
Last Friday, Krista Hensel and I hosted our ninth Conversations from a Page event, and we featured Kathleen West and Simone St. James. Kathleen is a debut author who lives in Minnesota, and her book Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes came out earlier this month. Simone’s latest, The Sun Down Motel, is her seventh novel. Krista and I are big fans of both their books and the authors themselves.
While their books are very different, Kathleen and Simone paired well together and regaled the crowd with tales about the publishing process, their writing styles, book title selection and cover choices, and more. I have always felt that learning more about an author and his or her creation of a book greatly enhances my enjoyment of that book. We receive a lot of nice feedback after our events, but the most commonly shared sentiment is that same idea – hearing insights into an author’s process provides an even better reading experience. Q & As accomplish a similar objective, and I hope you enjoy reading Kathleen’s answers as much as I did. And if you have not read Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes yet, add it your list - it is a truly impressive debut!
What inspired you to start writing this book?
The idea for an over-the-top, out-of-control theater mom came to me when my own son tried out for his middle school musical. Unlike my main character, Julia Abbott, I did not storm the cast list on decision day or bribe the principal with a sizable contribution to the Theater Boosters, but I sure did want him to get a part.
What comes first, the plot or the characters?
For Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes, two early pivotal scenes of the novel arrived in my brain first. I clearly saw my lead characters and immediately felt their conflicts. Plot details and backstories became richer and more detailed with each revision over the course of three years.
My next novel (we’re working on a title) began with a character. First, I wrote Alice as a woman in her 20s. She was an adoptee on a quest to find her birthmother. (I am also an adoptee, and I also know my birthmother.)
This turned out not to be the right scenario for Alice. [So] I aged her up 10 or 12 years and gave her a couple of kids, including a misbehaving middle-schooler and a second grader who falls precipitously behind in reading. I mixed in two friends she’s had since they met as kindergarten moms. It’s a trio that’s always made sense, but now that the kids are acting (badly) of their own accord, the friendship has become strained. [In this revised version,] Alice is still adopted, but other secrets and betrayals in the novel take precedence over the mystery of her genetic origin.
How do you come up with the title(s) to your book(s)?
I’m terrible at titles and outsource much of the brainstorming to my friend KK who’s great at it. She comes up with a long list of possibilities, and I steal from that. My agent and editor take it from there.
What is the most difficult part about writing for you?
The answer to this question has changed in the course of pursuing writing over the last five years. It used to be that accepting feedback was the hardest part. I still have to steel myself before opening edit letters, but that’s not the hardest part anymore. Now, it’s pushing through the inevitable periods of self-doubt. Lucky for me, I have great friends, writing partners, and cheerleaders who urge me forward.
How do you do research for your books?
Thus far, I’ve built fictional worlds with which I’m intimately familiar. Before I wrote Minor Dramas and Other Catastrophes, I worked in schools (mostly as an English teacher) for 20 years. Rather than doing a lot of outside research, I mined my memories for all of the details that characterize a school or a suburban community.
Of course, I need lots of details about various professions and activities, from interior design to publishing to competitive soccer, to make my writing fresh and funny. I’ve just begun drafting a new project, and my Google history is already amusing. Just this morning, I needed to know about vegetarian sushi and the timeline of Chandler and Monica’s relationship on Friends. I also required a list of the seasons of The Bachelorette in order, and I had to refresh myself on the writings of Roland Barthes and read a short synopsis of DA Miller’s “Anal Rope.” The research is always a surprise.
What are you reading now?
I just started Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow. It’s excellent, and I’m in awe of the brave women who’ve spoken up about the harassment and trauma they’ve endured, even though the perpetrators are so powerful.
What do you like to do when you are not writing or reading?
I like to run, eat, and hang out with my hilarious family.
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