Interview with American Writer, Liz Kay

Photo: Liz Kay

Photo: Liz Kay

Brief Biography:

Liz Kay is a founding editor of Spark Wheel Press and the journal burntdistrict. Her poems have appeared in such journals as Beloit Poetry Journal, Willow Springs, and Sugar House Review. She is the author of the chapbook Something to Help Me Sleep published by {dancing girl press}, and her debut novel, Monsters: A Love Story, about the toxic love affair between a widowed poet and the A-list actor who options her novel in verse, is out this summer from G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Vogue calls it “entertainingly dyspeptic.”

Geosi Gyasi: How would you distinguish between life as a poet and novelist?

Liz Kay: I’m really interested in the way you phrased this question. I’ve been asked before about the differences between writing poetry and fiction, but living as a poet versus as a novelist is just as distinct. I’m more confident as a poet for one thing, probably because I’ve done it longer, but also because being a novelist is simply more public. And readers’ reactions to poetry and fiction are wildly different as well. In either genre, you’re going to come across readers who simply don’t connect with your work, and in poetry, that tends to be the way it’s expressed. I probably only really enjoy about 5% of the poems I read, but I never think of that as being the fault of the poem. Even when I really admire a poet’s body of work, they’ll have many many poems that just don’t hit the mark for me. Each poem is entirely its own thing, and it either resonates with me, or it doesn’t. But readers of fiction come to the work with very clear expectations and they are happy to tell you all the ways your book would be better if it were just a different kind of book.

Geosi Gyasi: Were you a poet before you became a novelist?

Liz Kay: Yes, absolutely. I’ve been seriously writing and publishing poetry for more than 10 years. Prior to Monsters: A Love Story, the last time I’d written fiction was in undergraduate when I was told that I’d taken Creative Writing Poetry as many times as they were going to let me, so I took a short story class instead.

Geosi Gyasi: Is your novel, ‘Monsters: A Love Story’ really a love story?

Liz Kay: It is, and it isn’t. I’m interested in critiquing sexual power dynamics and gender expectations, but I’m also interested in the process of enculturation, the way we use these kinds of stories to shore up our ideas about love and gender and which kinds of behaviors are acceptable/excusable and which aren’t. So Tommy and Stacey have a pretty typical love story in some ways. There’s the unexpected meeting, the miscommunications, the outsized glamour that comes with the possibility of choosing Tommy. The novel has been described as a romantic fairy tale, and in many ways it is. But the novel also invites serious criticism of the characters, their behaviors and also their failures to live up to their own ideals. Stacey is a feminist, but she has to live in the world as a woman, which means that if she wants to be successful and personally satisfied, she has to meet the expectations set for her. Intellectually, we might agree that women should be able to ask for the things they want from their romantic partners, but realistically, we know that women who do are seen as needy and demanding and so the only way forward for a woman like Stacey is to insist that actually, she just doesn’t want any of it anyway. Monsters is a love story, but it’s a love story that attempts to proceed according to the rules of both the fairy tale romance and the rules of the culture we live in today, and by doing so, hopefully reveal some of the toxicity of both. But in a much funnier way than I’m making it sound.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you describe your writing process?

Liz Kay: My writing process is different with every project. I’m not a very disciplined writer, so I can’t say that I write every day for three hours or that I plan and research and outline. What I am is an obsessive writer, and that obsession manifests a little differently each time. When I was working on my last poetry manuscript, a retelling of Hansel & Gretel from the perspective of the witch, the obsession involved a lot of reading. It might sound better to call it research, but essentially I read everything I could about witches. I read novels. I read different retellings of the cannibalistic witch fairy tale like Baba Yaga. I read anthropological studies about folk beliefs and magic. I just read a lot, and every so often, something I read would give me the spark of a poem and that poem would find its place in the manuscript. With Monsters, the obsession manifested itself in the act of writing, taking me back to the page every spare minute of every day. I wrote the novel very quickly in about six weeks. I just never really stepped away from it completely. Even while I was making dinner for my family at night, I’d have the manuscript open. I’d put a pot of water on to boil and then go back and write until it did.

Geosi Gyasi: At what stage in your life did you consider yourself as a poet?

Liz Kay: I remember telling people I was going to be a poet when I was still in grade school. I started seriously reading and writing poetry in high school, though I don’t know that I thought of it as a career until I was in my 30s. To be fair, when I say, “career” I mean something you do with the work ethic and dedication of a profession but for which you never actually get paid. Fiction offers a slightly better income, but I’m not going to quit teaching anytime soon.

Geosi Gyasi: Has the purpose for why you started burntdistrict been achieved?

Liz Kay: I think so! Jen Lambert and I started the journal as a way to invest in the broader poetry community. We wanted to foster relationships with other poets and editors and we wanted to promote the sort of poetry that we found ourselves drawn to. It has absolutely been a labor of love, emphasis on labor, but it’s been very very rewarding.

Geosi Gyasi: Does one require any special skill to become an editor?

Liz Kay: There are many skills to be learned along the way–practical budgeting skills, layout and design, web development. Most importantly, though, editing requires a willingness to read, almost endlessly, and a willingness to read work you love as well as work you don’t. Editing also requires a great deal of confidence to be able to say, This thing in front of me that is a little unlike anything I’ve read before, is good. It’s good, and I’ll stake my reputation on it.

Geosi Gyasi: As an editor, how do you deal with sending rejection letters to writers?

Liz Kay: Initially it’s painful to send declines, but over time, you get used to it. It’s harder to decline poets you know and poets you’ve published before, but ultimately any single decline just means that this specific batch of poems didn’t hit the mark for our next issue. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything beyond that, and I think most poets, at least those with some experience submitting work, know that.

Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever been rejected for any of your work?

Liz Kay: So much! My work has been rejected by many, many top journals and then published in others. I am pretty inured to rejection at this point. Like all new writers, when I was first sending out work, I read each rejection as a comment on the poems I’d sent in. Now, particularly after working as an editor, rejections don’t really faze me.

Geosi Gyasi: Which of your published poems are you most proud of?

Liz Kay: “A Warning,” published in Beloit Poetry Journal.

Geosi Gyasi: In Omaha, NE, where you live, can you give me an account of the literary culture there?

Liz Kay: Omaha has a really vibrant literary community, really a vibrant arts community in general, from the visual to the culinary arts. One of the reasons I think we’re seeing such strong work coming out of Omaha is that the arts community is really supportive. It’s collaborative, encouraging, and joyful. The cost of living is also quite low, and since most artists are paying the bills with other, non-creative work, it’s important to live in a place where you can commit more time to your art and less time to paying the rent.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you put your family life into your writing?

Liz Kay: Yes and no. My writing is absolutely informed by my experience living in a family and I have written pretty autobiographical poetry about my experiences as a mother, particularly my experiences with prenatal and post-partum depression. That said, my work has in recent years moved away from personal experience, though I am more than happy to steal liberally from my own surroundings for the sake of grounding details. In writing Monsters, I didn’t base the characters of Stacey’s children on my own, but the experience of mothering sons absolutely informed some of her interactions with her children. That said, my own sons are significantly funnier and sharper than Stacey’s kids.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the mission of Spark Wheel Press?

Liz Kay: The mission of Spark Wheel Press is to publish and promote exceptional collections of contemporary poetry. It grew out of our experience reading for burntdistict. Often Jen and I would read submissions that were clearly part of a larger whole, a full collection, and we wanted to read those books.

Geosi Gyasi: Do ideas for poems come easily to you?

Liz Kay: Definitely not. I started working in series, either thematic series or narrative sequences, just to give myself a starting place.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have particular poets or writers you often read?

Liz Kay: I really love Sharon Olds and Louise Glück, and they are probably the poets I return to most to reread the poems I already know. I still feel like I’m playing catch-up in the world of contemporary fiction as I’d spent a few years reading poetry almost exclusively, so I’m trying to read pretty broadly and not indulge in rereading favorites, though authors with books I’ve already loved get shuffled to the top of the to-read list. Next up is Pamela Erens’ Eleven Hours, whose novel The Virgins stands out as one of the best I’ve read in recent years.

Geosi Gyasi: What is/are your main interests as a writer?

Liz Kay: I am almost always writing about the experience of living in the world as a woman and how being a woman impacts our most intimate relationships, both romantic and maternal.

Geosi Gyasi: Are there times you feel like not writing?

Liz Kay: Definitely. There are many, many times I don’t feel like writing and I’ve found that for me, it’s better if I just don’t. I never force myself to write.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you sometimes feel nervous about your next publication?

Liz Kay: Often. I feel nervous about how my work is going to be received, whether people will bother to read it. I feel nervous about whether there will be a next publication at all. What if I’ve written my last word? Or worse, what if the thing I write next turns out to not be very good?

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any work-in-progress? 

Liz Kay: I do, though it is not making much progress at the moment. I’m working on a second novel, but the nature of publishing a novel means that Monsters keeps periodically reinserting itself into my field of vision. Last year this took the form of revisions and copy-edits. This year, it’s taking the form of touring and doing interviews and talking about the book. In general, my writing can take a lot of interruption when that interruption doesn’t pull me into other creative work, but I’m spending so much time thinking about Monsters these days, that Tommy and Stacey are getting in the way of my other characters, so I’m having to sit on my hands for a bit. I’m eager to get back to the novel soon I hope.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you meet the co-founder of both burntdistrict and Spark Wheel Press, Jennifer Lambert? What do you make of her literary work?

Jen and I met in graduate school but we also live close to one another and have children of similar ages, so our friendship grew out of a lot of similarities beyond our love of poetry. Jen is a really, really talented poet and she approaches her work with a level of attention and care that I find intimidating. Her poems are fearless and beautiful and she writes them with the same sharp eye that she brings to editing. When it comes to poetry, Jen is completely focused on the words on the page and she is a merciless editor, with her own work as much as with anyone else’s. She’s always pushing the poem a step farther, making it a little tighter, a little sharper. I love her work in and of itself, but more significantly I’m really struck by how far she’s able to take it.

 END.

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