Interview with Kimberly Knutsen

As the holidays continue to approach, and things have gotten a bit off schedule in my house – at least reading wise — the forthcoming posts are expected to a bit more haphazard in topic than I would prefer.

Today, I have an interview with the author of The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath, Kimberly Knutsen.

About the Book from GoodReads:

Set in the frozen wasteland of Midwestern academia, The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath introduces Wilson A. Lavender, father of three, instructor of women’s studies, and self-proclaimed genius who is beginning to think he knows nothing about women. He spends much of his time in his office not working on his dissertation, a creative piece titled “The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath.” A sober alcoholic, he also spends much of his time not drinking, until he hooks up with his office mate, Alice Cherry, an undercover stripper who introduces him to “the buffer”—the chemical solution to his woes.

Wilson’s wife, Katie, is an anxious hippie, genuine earth mother, and recent PhD with no plans other than to read People magazine, eat chocolate, and seduce her young neighbor—a community college student who has built a bar in his garage. Intelligent and funny, Katie is haunted by a violent childhood. Her husband’s “tortured genius” both exhausts and amuses her.

Please give Ms. Knutsen a warm welcome:

Why Sylvia Plath? What is it about her that intrigued you to incorporate her journals into your novel?

As a writer, I was intrigued by the many facets of Plath’s personality: the good girl in Letters Home; the funny, snarky coed in the journals; the cool primeval persona of the Ariel poems; Esther, so mean and desperate and sad in The Bell Jar. The characters in The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath—Wilson, his wife Katie, and her sister January—are also fractured due to childhood trauma and addiction. No matter how hard they try, they are unable to truly connect with another.

As far as the journals go, Wilson is rewriting Plath’s lost journals—the ones that went missing or were destroyed after her death—as his doctoral dissertation. A popular instructor of women’s studies who is beginning to think he knows nothing about women, he is bravely co-opting the voice of a fellow “tortured genius.” There’s just one catch: He spends most of his time not writing, and by mid-novel has come up with just one line: “Felt like singing today!”

What is your favorite Sylvia Plath poem and why?

I love “Elm.” The tree is magnificent in its dying. The imagery captures the fury and violence and horrifying beauty of life: “I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets./ Scorched to the root/ My red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires.” Love it! “Elm” contains one of my favorite lines, which I used as an epigraph in my novel Violet: “Love is a shadow./ How you lie and cry after it.”

Have you written poetry? Why or why not.

I teach an introductory course in poetry and often do the exercises with the students, and I can say with authority that I am definitely not a poet, although my writing—the language and rhythm—can be very poetic. I’m always amazed at the work my college students produce. They have so much primal energy, and the key is to just help them harness it.

I did publish one poem in Hoot: http://www.hootreview.com/. They print poems on postcards, and provide audio of the poets reading on the website. I think my poem was a total of thirty words, and I must have spent hours recording myself reading it aloud in this strange, breathy voice. As soon as I pushed record on the phone, I’d panic and freeze: no inhalation, no exhalation. Just dumb, stunned silence. And then the voice. Like if a balloon could form words. Barely.

Work/Life balance is tough as a mother, can you offer any advice that has worked for you as an author, professor, and mother? What are your thoughts about women who want to take it all on and fail?

That’s an interesting question. We never ask men this question: How do you balance work and fatherhood? It’s a given that work is important and fatherhood will fall into place naturally.

Mothers, however, have impossible standards to live up to. We are responsible for every horrible thing our children do. We’re the life-givers and the destroyers. If our child is an addict, well, we must have enabled them by loving them too much, or else we traumatized them by not loving them enough. Working mothers come home from work and dive into the second shift—laundry, dishes, grocery shopping, the cat litter box—and a, we better not complain, and b, we better look good doing it.

With that said, I love being a mom. To me, motherhood is life (and I fully recognize that this is not necessarily true for others, nor should it be). I find that bitching and complaining is a great way to blow off steam and keep myself sane. I highly recommend it.

My advice for working mothers/writers: Create. If you can only write for twenty minutes in the bathroom while one child takes a bath and the other unrolls the entire roll of toilet paper, do it. I wrote my entire 570-page dissertation in coffee shops, and sometimes even in my car parked in a church parking lot, while paying a babysitter for those two hours of freedom. If you are blessed with artistic gifts, let them blossom. A silent writer is a life half lived, and a writer who writes is able to live life twice. Create teeny-tiny poems. Type them on a postcard. Record yourself reading them aloud. Don’t forget to breathe!

A final word on housekeeping. As a mom, I try to block out media messages that tell me how perfect my children and home and teeth and boobs should be. Where did this idea of having a showplace home come from? When I was a kid growing up in the 70s, houses were just houses, with the same pictures on the walls, year in and year out, and the same 1970s brown shag carpet, the same old furniture, the same old Tupperware. Nothing was fancy and nothing changed—not even the meals. I try to keep my home 70s style: clean enough, but certainly not pristine or fancy. There’s still the horrible carpet the elderly dog dribbles on and the mini-blinds that you all of a sudden realize are really disgusting. But how much does it matter in the end?

It’s not life or death. Dirty mini-blinds are not life or death. Creating, living life authentically, loving and helping others—this is what matters. Dirty mini-blinds and old carpet are way down on the list. (But you can see how much these mini-blinds are bothering me!)

How many writing projects do you work on at one time? Do you outline? What other practices did you learn at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?

The most important thing I learned at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was how to be an advocate for myself and my writing. Before you go, you’re usually the “star” of your writing program, and all the professors love you and you win all the awards, and you think you’re some kind of literary goddess! Riiight. Then you get to Iowa and you learn pretty quickly that everyone is a “star” and nobody thinks you or your writing are anything special, and you’re really nobody, and it’s a huge blow to your ego.

I loved when Hannah on Girls went to Iowa because it’s exactly like that: She got there and everyone hated her and her work, and there’s always one guy with three names, like Ethan Phillip Thomas, who all the professors love, and he’s the one that gets the agent and the book deal while still in the program, and wins the Michener award and the Stegner award, and this guy with the three names, this E.P.T., is definitely not you! As a writer, you can either crumble and quit or keep writing. Not for the attention and the awards and the praise, but for yourself, because you are a writer and writers write. Period.

At Iowa, I learned about rejection and disinterest, which is 99.9 percent of a writer’s life. But as I’ve said before, you only need one yes, so keep writing!

Oh, and to answer the question: I usually obsess about just one project at a time, and I do create a crazy, color-coded outline, but only near the end of the revision process. I go through each chapter and note symbols, themes, motifs, character arcs, etc. The outline is bright and colorful and shows how brilliant our subconscious minds are, and how clunky and obvious and downright dumb our conscious minds can be.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us today.

  • Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

    Fantastic interview! I loved the motherhood question. I’m still trying to let go of the little housework things and focus on my writing, but it’s hard…and I don’t have a little kid anymore!

  • I feel like learning about rejection and disinterest & how to deal with that should be required curriculum in every school in the country. Maybe we would have less bruised egos & more empathetic and resilient human beings.

    • Yes, there is far too much coddling going on these days. I let my daughter fail and make sure she knows that she can try again.

  • Suko

    “Creating, living life authentically, loving and helping others—this is what matters.”

    Very wise words! Thank you for this wonderful interview.

  • bermudaonion(Kathy)

    Wow, I LOVE her answer to your question about working moms. She’s so right – we would never think to ask a man a question like that.

    • Exactly. But as a mother who works, it’s interesting that we place expectations on ourselves but also society places them on us. Some husbands need to step up more