I am honored today, to welcome Kristin Bair O’Keeffe, author of Thirsty. I’ve followed Kristin’s writing career through her column in Writers on the Rise. This is a writer definitely on the rise, and this is a book you need to have on your nightstand!
Kristin Bair O’Keeffe’s life is a melding of many cultures. A native Pittsburgher(Go Steelers!) raised with the Croatian traditions of her grandparents, Kristin lives in China with a husband who was raised in Ireland and the Vietnamese daughter.
During their four years in China, Kristin has taught writing, written a blog “My Beautiful Far-flung Life, and attempted to learn Mandarin Chinese(unsuccessfully according to her neighbors). Oh, and written the novel Thirsty. Thirsty started as a graduate thesis and ended after countless drafts. Drafts that, to the dismay of her fellow coffee lovers, she felt the need to read aloud as she edited in a local coffee shop.
If she hadn’t become a writer, Kristin suspects that she would have become a ventriloquist, roadie for Meat Loaf, or time traveler. (And yes, she has read The Time Traveler’s Wife.) Among other things, she would use her time traveling powers to frequently return home and enjoy the magic that is the hoagies at Danny’s Pizza.
In 1883, Klara Bozic arrives in the New World ready to start a new life with her new husband. She quickly learns that her new life in the Pennsylvania steel town of Thirsty is very much like her old life of beatings, isolation, and poverty. For forty years she endures with the help of a few misfit friends she makes: her fun-loving neighbor Katherine Zupanovic; BenJo, the only black man in Thirsty to have his own shop; and Old Man Rupert, the town drunk. Only when her daughter enters a similar marriage punctuated by pain and terror does Klara resolve to free herself, her daughter, and her granddaughters from this life sentence of brutality and find peace.
Just Thought You Should Know:
According to the CDC, one in four women has experienced domestic violence in her lifetime. The WOW Blog Tour for Thirsty , a novel about one family’s attempt to break the cycle of domestic violence, takes place during the same month as International Day Against Domestic Violence (Nov. 25).
Kristin Bair O’Keeffe’s website: http://www.thirstythenovel.com
Kristin Bair O’Keeffe’s blog: http://www.kristinbairokeeffeblog.com
Thirsty Video Book Trailer: http://www.thirstythenovel.com/audio-video/
Interview by: Mary Jo Campbell
1. Your debut novel, Thirsty, was inspired from a poem you wrote years before. Can you tell us about that process: how did you know there was an entire novel in there? How did you expand poetry to prose?
I love poetry…reading it and writing it. In 1987 as an undergraduate at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, I wrote and published “Crumbling Steeples,” a poem about how the crash of Pittsburgh’s steel industry affected its steel communities (and in particular, my grandfather). After I wrote it, I thought I was done writing about Pittsburgh and steel. But around the same time, this woman started floating around in my head (the woman who eventually became Klara). I didn’t see her clearly for a number of years, but she was always there, giving me small glimpses of her life and her struggles.
When I started graduate school in 1992, I took a creative nonfiction workshop in which one of our first assignments was to choose a topic to research. Still driven by my experiences as a kid in my grandparents’ steel community—Clairton, Pennsylvania—I chose the steel industry in Pittsburgh. That’s when Klara and the setting of Thirsty began to take shape.
Thirsty is about a woman trying to break the cycle of domestic violence, which has followed her from her childhood, through her marriage and into her adult daughter’s life. You witnessed domestic violence in your own family and went on to volunteer in domestic abuse shelters. Can you share the emotions you felt while writing this poignant book? How do you hope it will connect with readers?
One of my Google Alerts is “domestic violence,” and every day I get somewhere between fifteen and thirty alerts in my inbox…sometimes more. The stories pour in from all over the world: White Ribbon Day in New Zealand, the domestic violence program in England that will be implemented in schools in 2011, Rihanna and Chris Brown, Oprah’s recent hubbub concerning BeBe Winans, and so many stories of women who are broken, burned, maimed, and killed by their husbands and boyfriends.
This issue touches everyone, and it makes me crazy that we can’t get a handle on it…that hurting women and girls is still an epidemic in our world. There’s a moment in Thirsty after Klara has just given birth to her first child in a field—a girl—and she’s thinking about her husband, pain, motherhood, love, violence, and, well, lots of other things. It echoes my own feelings about domestic violence. It goes like this:
Klara looked up and squeezed her knees together until she felt the baby’s tiny fist flutter against her thigh. The sky spread behind Katherine like a variegated quilt, and all Klara could think was that if she felt stronger, she would reach right up and grab hold of its corners, which stretched out somewhere in faraway lands where other women of other colors and beliefs were lying on their backs in fields with babies warming between their legs, vines rustling, pumpkins looking on. If she felt just the slightest bit stronger, she could pull that sky down to cover all the women of the world, cover all that hurting, like a tent, a blanket, a second skin. (pp. 42-43)
2. You received your Masters of Arts Degree from Columbia College Chicago, my old stomping grounds. I can see the art and depth in your writing and recognize how the workshop method resonates in this novel. Can you tell us which writing class was especially helpful to your writing? Do you have a favorite writing reference book to recommend for fiction writers?
Yep, I was lucky enough to get my MFA from the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago. (In fact, the first full draft of Thirsty was my graduate thesis.) Truly I loved all my writing workshops there; we worked our arses off, but it was so worth it. Randy Albers, the chair of the department and my thesis advisor, was especially important to me and to Thirsty. As I moved through the story, he made me look more deeply at Klara, and despite any protests I might have made, he continued to ask the question, “What happens next?”
My favorite writing reference book? Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life…mostly because a) she makes me laugh (read the section about school lunches…you’ll laugh, too) and b) she tells stories about storytelling…which is, for me, the most effective way to teach writing.
3. While living in Chicago, you also taught writing in the Chicago Public Schools. As a creative writing teacher to young adults, myself, I’m always looking for unique lesson plans and exercises. But, more importantly, how to engage the “non-writers.” What method(s) did you use to draw these students in and give them courage to write (and share)?
I’ve been teaching writing workshops since 1994, and as a teacher I love to figure out how to move a student who believes she is a “non-writer” to recognizing that she can write (and then, writing). The funny thing is, every student (and every class) is different so I have to pay close attention to the particulars of each situation. Sometimes I reach the students by sharing a piece of published writing. (Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried usually works quite well.) Other times, it’s simply a matter of telling lots of stories out loud so that students (often subconsciously) recognize that “oh, writing is just another way of telling stories”…something we all do every day.
In October while I was home in the U.S. touring around with Thirsty, I returned to my high school alma mater. For two days I met with the creative writing students at the school; I yakked with them about life in China, selling a first novel, the writing process, creativity, and lots more. In one particular class, the conversation was getting a little flat, so somehow (and don’t ask me how) I began telling the story of my first kiss.
Now when I tell stories out loud, I tell them with my whole self …gestures, facial expressions, voice, etc…not in some kind of wacky, don-the-costume kind of way…but I’m completely engaged. And I tell you what, even before I got to the moment of the actual kiss, I had every student (and teacher!) in that room thinking about their first kiss (or perhaps, in some cases, dreaming about what their first kiss would be like). The air in the room got thick and floaty, the way it does when people are deep in the creative process; everyone’s face was soft and their eyes cloudy and distant. It was gorgeous! If I’d had time, I would have had them all grab a piece of paper and a pen and start writing. (Who knew high school classes are only 40 or so minutes long?!) The results would have been spectacular.
4. Are there any events, signings or tours you’d like us to know about? What’s next for Kristin Bair O’Keeffe?
I spent a good bit of October and November in the U.S. promoting Thirsty. Although I was moving so fast that much of it is now a blur, I’m pretty sure I did an author’s feast at the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association convention in Cleveland, a flurry of radio interviews, a webcast interview with the books editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and readings and book signings in Pittsburgh, Massachusetts, and Maine. I was also the one in the international terminal at the airport calling, “Hey, hey, you! Yes, you! Do you read? Have you seen my debut novel Thirsty?”
Now that I’m back home in Shanghai, I’m doing as much as I can via the Internet (including this spectacular blog tour put together by WOW!). Living in China and publishing in the U.S. has forced me to think outside of the box…I’m constantly dreaming up new ways to reach potential readers.
On top of that, we have a terrific reading/writing community in Shanghai, and folks are very supportive of fellow expats. In the coming months, I’ll be doing as many events in Asia as possible. Right now I’m scheduled to speak to a handful of reading groups and give a talk at the most amazing Shanghai International Literary Festival (March 2010).
There’s lots more creative marketing ahead, including fun giveaways. Check into my blog (www.kristinbairokeeffeblog.com) and stay tuned!