The Colgate Scene
March 2008

The memory maker

Kim Edwards '81
[Photo © Mark Kidd]

Last year, The Memory Keeper's Daughter, the story of a child born with Down syndrome and the family secrets and lies that follow, became a literary phenomenon and surprise summer reading hit. Within weeks of its paperback release, the novel simultaneously reached number one on the New York Times, USA Today, Publisher's Weekly, and Book Sense bestseller lists, and it has been published in 34 languages.

Author (and writing professor) Kim Edwards '81 is currently writing her second novel, which is set in the Finger Lakes region of New York. Edwards recently gave a reading at the Colgate Bookstore, and she sat down for a conversation about writing, her Colgate mentor, the late Frederick Busch, and the mysterious impact that fiction can have on the real world. What follows are excerpts of the interview, conducted by Matt Leone, director of the Colgate (formerly Chenango Valley) Writer's Conference, which Busch founded.

ML: When did you first discover the joy of writing?

KE: I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I had no idea whatsoever how one became a writer. I started my college career at a community college, actually, as a business major, and then discovered that I could major in English, and transferred very happily to Colgate, where I got to study creative writing with Frederick Busch.

It changed my path in life, to be able to study with someone who was so impassioned about writing, who was a practicing writer, and who was such a generous teacher to share it, not only with me, but with so many other students.

ML: Have you published any of your writings from your Colgate days? Do some continue to evolve?

KE: Actually, the first story that I ever wrote seriously, I wrote for the first workshop I took with him. It's a story now called "The Way It Felt to Be Falling" that is in my collection The Secrets of a Fire King and that I consider to be the story that I learned to write on.

When I put it up in Fred's workshop, it was thirty-two pages long, which I was immensely proud of, although I'm sure my classmates were rolling their eyes and not quite so thrilled about it. But Fred was excited about the story and gave me wonderful feedback on it, as did the class. I workshopped that story twice more at [the University of] Iowa, and then, periodically over the years, I took it out and put it away and sometimes rewrote it entirely. Eventually it was published and ended up winning a Pushcart Prize.

When I teach, I use the first paragraph of that story in some of its many incarnations over the years to show students how revision reshapes and is a real process of re-seeing. Not just fixing sentences, but reconceptualizing what the story is about — or discovering what the story is about, in that case.

ML: You say that you, as a writer, as the maker, discover and sometimes rediscover the story inside itself?

KE: I think about writing that early draft as laying out a landscape. Then I think about the work I do in revision, which I think is the substantive work of writing, as becoming an archaeologist in that landscape and digging down to see what things are hidden, what things have not been unearthed, and to pull them to the surface and to see what shape I can make from them.

ML: I recall Fred Busch doing a very interesting thing. He first writes a story that I found very successful and engaging called "Folk Tales" — it's about folk tales that shaped his own family — and publishes it. And then he writes an article on that story in the Threepenny Review criticizing the story as a cowardly lie. He said if he had really had the guts, he would have written the story not about a fantastical Uncle Ernie, but about his mother, who was (and this is a quote) "pathological in her possessiveness." So my question in that drawn-out intro is simply this: Do your stories sometimes surprise you in pleasant or unpleasant ways? To me, this was rather stunning, that this story seemed to have a life of its own for Fred, so much so that he attacked it publicly.

KE: They do. I always feel, and I always tell my students this, that when a story surprises me, I know that it is coming alive, that it's taking on a life of its own.

I've just been working on a chapter of this new novel, and I was having that kind of experience where I was not finding it, not discovering the character, not sure where I was going, and everything had a false ring to it for a little while. Then suddenly, for whatever reason, the pieces began to fall into place and went in a direction that I hadn't expected.

I think being receptive and being open to the possibility that the story will take you where you don't imagine that you can go, or will go, is part of the wonderful thing about writing. But it's also part of finding the heart of the story.

ML: Are you ritualistic in your creative process?

KE: I am, to some extent. I have small children. For some years, to get anything done at all, I had to be flexible in my rituals. I write in the morning; that is the time that is best for me, but there were years during the writing of The Memory Keeper's Daughter and before when I would get up at four thirty, five in the morning and have that time to write before anyone else in the house was awake. I do have certain steps that I follow, but I've had to give into the pressures and demands of the world around me. I think it's made me much more of an efficient writer to have so many other things going on in my life.

ML: What are some of the more bizarre moments and questions that you've been confronted by in this last year?

KE: Well, they've not been so much bizarre . . . I went to Italy for the book launch there, and as it happens, the CEO of the publishing company in Italy has a son who has Down syndrome. The Memory Keeper's Daughter is called Daughter of Silence in Italian. The launch involved a panel discussion with a musician who had a grown daughter with Down syndrome; a judge, an advocate for children with Down syndrome; the publisher; and a literary critic.

So there was this broad spectrum of opinions, a spirited discussion on a Tuesday afternoon at four o'clock. The room was packed. I was fortunate to have a simultaneous interpreter who was marvelous, because otherwise I would have missed it all. It was fascinating to me to watch.

At one point, the publisher turned to me and said, "See what you have started?" It was a stunning moment for me. I know lots of discussion takes place about The Memory Keeper's Daughter, but to be involved in it in this cultural context that was not my own was very powerful for me.

ML: It's stunning to think fiction you created as having these wonderful and positive effects on how people think about Down syndrome, our responses to it as a culture, as a government, as individuals.

KE: It is surprising to me. It's a wonderful thing to see happen. I was invited in August to be a keynote speaker at the National Down Syndrome Congress . . . I didn't know anything about Down syndrome when I started the book. I had to do a lot of research. I was helped tremendously by the families of people with Down syndrome who shared their stories, none of which I used in the book but all of which helped me understand the landscape they had faced. For that community to embrace the book was very meaningful to me.

ML: Fictions, and your fictions in particular, matter in a host of ways, not just as flights away from the real. I think they're flights into the real.

KE: Thank you.

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