Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Author Interview: Kate Hopper on Writing, Craft, Motherhood, and Her Memoir, Ready For Air

(Update: giveaway extended to 11/30)

I usually remember how I first came into contact with a writer, but there are online writing friends who seem to have always been there. Was it Facebook? Mutual blog appreciation? Writing friends in common?  Were we fellow contributors to an anthology? In the case of Kate Hopper, all of the above – maybe more. No matter, I'm simply grateful our paths criss-cross, and like so many who value her writing, I made my way quickly, and with much admiration, through Kate's memoir Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood. Kate is also the author of Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers, and she holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Minnesota. Her writing has appeared in BrevityPoets & Writersthe New York Times online, and Literary Mama, where she is an editor. Kate teaches online and at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. 

After a busy month of blog tour, events, and appearances to mark her memoir's debut, she agreed to answer my many questions.

Please welcome Kate Hopper.

Q:  How did the book begin? Did you know from the start it would be a book, or did that creep up on you as you accumulated material?

A.  In the early weeks/months of writing, I was just vomiting out images and memories and impressions to get them down on paper, which felt urgent to me and really helped me process our experience with prematurity and Stella’s hospitalization. But I knew I would be returning to graduate school the following fall to finish my MFA, and I knew I’d have to write a thesis, so I really began to think of it as a book pretty early on.

Q.  The book is in the present tense, almost exclusively except for flashbacks. Was that a careful decision in terms of craft, or did that just feel organically right for you, for this material?

A. Both actually. It felt organically right, but I was also really determined to keep it in present tense for the narrative urgency that present provides. But present tense can be tricky to maintain over the course of a book.  There is no “now” narrator looking back and making sense of what happened; there is no other voice, as Sue William Silverman writes in her essay “Innocence and Experience: Voice in Creative Nonfiction,” that is “reflecting back on the story and guiding the reader through the maze of the experience.” There is only the “you” experiencing it in the moment.

So early on in the writing of the book, I worried that the narrative would become episodic, that it would be plot and nothing more, that the book would exist only in the situation, on the “this happened and then this happened” level.

So as I was working on the book (which was over a number of years—I started writing it ten years ago) I had to make sure that I fleshed out my character, the “me” on the page, as a thinking, reflective person. So the reflection enters the narrative not as my now, writing self thinking back on the events, but instead as an in-the-moment version of myself who is reflecting and trying to make sense out of things as they are happening in the narrative.

Q.  In the book you write that you were almost wholly unable to take notes at the time, which was unusual for you. What, if any, written documentation helped with the writing – hospital charts, emails, calendar entries, etc?

A. I didn’t take notes while Stella was in the hospital, except for recording a few details (weight change, major changes in her status, etc.) on a baby calendar I’d been given before she was born. Everything was very fresh in my mind when I began writing a few months later, but as I got deeper into the writing process, I ordered all of our medical records and printed out the emails I’d sent and received during that time. I also did a ton of research to verify medical facts and better understand prematurity and the major risks that preemies face. And articles I read later about PTSD in preemie parents also made their way into the narrative.

Q. How much of an effect did your being a creative nonfiction student in an MFA program have on your ability to mine the experience as it unfolded?  Did you find yourself "essaying" events as they happened, even just in your own head, sort of storing it away for future? 

A. During those early days in the NICU, I wasn’t consciously storing away the experience—I was simply too overwhelmed. But as Stella stabilized and we settled into a routine, I definitely remember writing the events in my head. And I experienced many of those “remember this” moments. So I’m sure that being immersed in the writing life prior to Stella’s birth had an impact on how I was experiencing those events.

Q. Continuing on that idea, was your sense of observing life influenced by so much memoir and personal narratives in your reading and teaching?  Perhaps a feeling of "I may write about this one day, so I'd better pay attention"?

A. Absolutely. I think it’s difficult not to do that as a writer—we’re always on the lookout for material. One of my favorite things about being a writer is the way it makes me pay attention and slow down. I remember one day early in my writing days when I was devouring a bowl of strawberries and I thought, hey, slow down. How would I describe the taste and texture of these strawberries if I had to write them? Whenever I find myself rushing through life, I remind myself of that moment. Stop, look around, describe.

Q.  Can you talk about the way you used details and objects, such as the Pee Jug, the rice sock, and the foaming antibacterial (among others), to evoke and heighten the narrator's experience?

A.  I always tell my students to focus on concrete details as they’re crafting their scenes, so during the writing of Ready for Air I often heard my teacher self asking my writer self if I’d done the same. I know that some of my readers will be intimately familiar with the NICU, but most of them won’t be, so it was really important for me to focus in on those details in order to put readers in my shoes. In the rewriting and revision process I tried to push that even further and ask how certain objects and details might work on a metaphorical level.

Q.  It seemed the lack of much backstory in the early pages helps amp up the immediacy and sense of urgency for the reader from the start. How much thought and/or revision was involved in crafting that in-the-middle-of-things opening?

A.  Lots of thought! That was actually always where the book began for me, but I played with starting in different places, and none of those alternate openings worked for me—I always came back to that doctor’s appointment in which I learned I might be developing preeclampsia. Those early chapters are partly about loss of innocence and adjusting expectations (and also about denial). But I also want readers to get to know Donny and me before Stella is born, so there is quite a bit of writing about our relationship and how we work together as a couple.

In a later draft, I did cut back on back-story (condensing what had been chapters 4 and 5 into two paragraphs). My inclination is to include too much back-story, so I try to always go back to the question What is this book really about? If the back-story I’ve included doesn’t serve the book’s purpose, I cut or seriously condensed it.

Q.  When in an MFA program, I wrote a research thesis on how women memoir writers navigate representing their spouses on the page. I'm curious about how much you included your husband Donny in that process. Did he read early drafts?  Was there an agreement about how much he'd feel comfortable with you revealing about your marital relationship? Any other ground rules, practices, etc.?

A. He didn’t read early drafts. In those, I was still trying to get us both down on the page honestly and in a way that felt three dimensional, so it didn’t make sense to have him weigh in at that point. My husband’s a private person, but he’s also very willing to let me write about our lives. He read later versions and he knew that if anything made him uncomfortable, we could talk about it. He’s my biggest supporter, so I wouldn’t put stuff out there if he wasn’t okay with it. And he had veto power over anything I wrote about his family. Interestingly, he only suggested one small change in the whole book. We had remembered a detail differently, and changing it didn’t alter the emotional reality of the scene for me, so I changed it. It was the least I could do.

Q. I was curious to learn that "ready for air" refers to when a preemie is ready to breathe normal room air on his/her own.  I also noticed many references throughout the book about breathing, air, feeling short of breath (physically and metaphorically), and claustrophobia.  

A. For me, “ready for air” is both about a preemie’s lungs and about me feeling stifled and overwhelmed in my role as an isolated new mother. The title was pulled from the line in the book that referenced Stella’s lungs, but I really wanted it to reverberate through the whole narrative on a metaphorical level.

Q.  I read your book during a week when I was teaching a memoir class in which a few students were struggling with too many secondary characters in their stories, and I noticed your book's author's note includes, "…I occasionally omitted a person from a scene as long as that omission did not compromise the veracity or substance of the story." This crystallizes a powerful but hard to learn aspect of memoir craft – knowing what to leave out and why. Did you realize instinctively that you'd have to make these omission decisions, or did they reveal themselves to you in the writing and/or revision process?

A. They revealed themselves to me in the writing and revision processes. Sometimes I realized that introducing a new and sometimes periphery character in a scene would just bog it down. Those were the cases in which I just left that person out, as long is it didn’t compromise the emotional truth of the scene. It’s so tricky to learn that, and for me I had to be in the thick of writing before it made sense.

Q. Near the end of the book, you explain how, during your child's first year or so, you began to build a writing routine into your new life as a mother, which, premature birth aside, is one of the most challenging times for a woman to continue writing. If I'm remembering right, you began with one morning a week, then built up to four mornings a week, cobbling together relatives pitching in, paid childcare help, and daycare. Since you've also teach classes and have written a book about writing through motherhood, can you talk about this a bit?

A. It’s challenging to balance writing and motherhood. It’s even more difficult if on top of being a mother you have to pay bills and juggle paying work with creative work (which is usually unpaid, at least at first). My students are always struggling to find a balance that works. I always ask them to think about what’s realistic in terms of a writing schedule. (Don’t say you’re going to write three days a week if that’s not feasible.) I make them write down their schedule, and then I stress that writing needs to be a priority if they really want to write. It doesn’t need to be #1 on the list, of course—that’s unlikely—but at least it needs to be on the list.

I can’t imagine motherhood without writing or writing without motherhood. Before Stella was born, I actually didn’t write very much. Clearly I wrote enough to get into an MFA program, and I did my assignments, but I also spent a great deal of time procrastinating, waiting for inspiration and generally wasting time.

But motherhood—and the need I felt to reflect on the larger issues that came up in my life as a result of me becoming a mother (isolation, marriage, writing itself)—made me into the writer I am today. And now, if I have two hours, I write for two hours. I no longer have time to wait for the muse to shine her light on me (and she’s incredibly unreliable anyway).

Flexibility is also important, though. Over the last couple of years (when I was working full time in addition to teaching and leading retreats, etc.), I wrote very little. And I just had to be okay with that. I knew I’d get back to a schedule in which writing would be possible, and I finally have.

Notes from Lisa:  Kate would love to answer your questions! Leave them here in comments, and she'll stop by a few times over the next couple of days to answer.  Kate will also give away a signed copy of Ready for Air to one commenter, chosen at random (whether you ask a question or not). Leave your comment before midnight on Monday, November 25 Sunday, November 30 to enter (must have a U.S. postal address).  To follow Kate's blog, go here.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post, Lisa and Kate. So much of what you say resonates with me; as you mentioned, I know that motherhood made me into the writer I am today. I've also (finally) realized that flexibility is the key to my practice.

I'm curious how you approach revision -- it's something I've been struggling with recently (where do I start? how do I take a step back to gain some objectivity?). I look forward to hearing your advice and insights!

kate hopper said...

Thanks so much for your comment and question, motherlogue!

The most helpful way to revise for me is to actually retype. I had worked on earlier drafts of the book, cutting and tweaking on the computer. And then I had about a year away from the manuscript, and it was during that time that I really understood what the book was about for me: learning to live with uncertainty and the ways that stories connect us to one another.

At that point I was a better writer than I had been when I started writing the book, and I knew it would be easier to come to the book fresh if I had a blank page. So I printed out the 310 pages, set them to the side and wrote the book again. It took another 2.5 years, but I'm so glad I did it that way. I was able to really put pressure on my sentences and I also had a much more intuitive sense of when to incorporate back-story, etc.

I also break down my revision thinking into two categories: big-picture revision (what is the real story here?) and craft revision (Are my characters 3-dimensional? Have I grounded my piece in place? Do I need to linger in reflection?) I think it's so helpful to differentiate between those two types of revision.

Sara said...

I like that way of breaking down revision.

When did you understand what your real story was? I've written a lot, but my sense of my real story is still very fuzzy.

kate hopper said...

Hi Sara!!

I know. It's so hard to really see it when you are in the middle of it. I don't think I had a clear sense of the real story until I'd finished (and revised and polished) a full draft. Then it was only with time away from it that I understood the story. It doesn't work that way for everyone, of course, but it definitely did for me and this book. I needed that distance from it in order to see it clearly.

Sue said...

You seemed to start your story quite soon after the actual events. What advice can you offer those of us who have waited years to write? Does it ever become too long ago?

Anonymous said...

Kate, Thanks for the revision insight -- it's very helpful! I can see how retyping would be a great way to get clear on what I'm saying. And, breaking the revision into pieces as you describe is also a great tactic. Thanks again, Liz (aka Motherlogue)

j9kovac said...

Wonderful questions (and answers!) So helpful for us memoir writers out there. Thank you.

kate hopper said...

Hi Sue!

I DID start writing soon after the events--while I was still in the midst of them. But don't think because you didn't do this that it's too late. There are so many memoirists who wait years to write about certain events in their lives. Some of them do it on purpose in order to give them the perspective that time provides.

So just keep putting words down on the page--you have an important story that will make it's way into the world. I know that!

kate hopper said...

Thank you, Janine and Liz! I'm so glad it's helpful!

Patrice said...

Thanks for this informative and encouraging interview. You talk about "vomiting out images and memories and impressions to get them down on paper." Could you please talk a little more about your process in terms of organizing these different images, memories, and impressions? Did it ever feel overwhelming to sort through it all? If so, can you suggest strategies to move forward? Thanks so much!

kate hopper said...

Hi Patrice, thanks for your great question.

I had about 70 pages of "vomit" when I started to think, "oh this goes at the beginning, this is part of the middle, this is in the end." It made sense to put things chronologically first. Then I started to see holes where I needed scenes or more writing. It was only later, though, that I realized where back-story might need to go. Chronology sometimes gets a bad rap, but I think it makes sense (as long as you understand what the frame of the piece is). For example, I wouldn't write chronologically from my childhood. The frame of my book is from the break-down of my pregnancy through Stella's first year. I understood that anything that came before that would have to be woven in as back-story. Does that make sense?

Sometimes I can be so overwhelming to wade through it all, so don't think it needs to be figured out all at once. In my full rewrite of the book, I spent more time thinking about chapters as thematic units, and that also shifted where things went and how it all hung together.

Patrice said...


Thanks so much for the thoughts. That is helpful to think about what the frame of the story actually is. Also it is encouraging to think that everything doesn't need to be figured out at once. Thanks for the response.


Nancy Hinchliff said...

Kate, your comments and advice about revision are invaluable. When I started the revision process, I had the urge to finish as soon as possible, then one day got the idea to leave it alone for a while. I am doing that right now and have already come up with interesting and creative ways of approaching my MS again, once I go back to it. Thank you so much, Nancy

kate hopper said...

Nancy, I'm so glad my comments were helpful!

Isn't it amazing how a little time away from a project lets in those new insights?

Wishing you all the best as you dive back in!


Jacqueline Howett said...

Great interview! Loved the comment section. Some great feedback in general. I don't have kids but I'm interested in memoirs. You've given me much to think about! Thanks for sharing!
Hope you had a nice Thanksgiving!

Lisa Romeo said...

Sara - you are the winner of the book. Please email me your postal address (see email link at left).

Thanks to all for reading, and for asking questions in comments.

- Lisa