Kim Wright talks about how she turned from writing for magazines to writing novels, why she writes in public places, and how winning the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction for her latest novel totally rocks.
1. You mentioned that winning the Willie Morris Award in Oct. 2017 for LAST RIDE TO GRACELAND came out of the blue, a welcome surprise. Besides the luncheon and reception in New York, and the $10,000 prize, what has the experience been like for you? How has winning the award affected your writing career?
When you write full time for a living, some days you feel like you're just spilling words into a void, and there are plenty of times when you wonder if anyone is really listening. I've never wanted to be anything but a writer and I adore my chosen work but I won't lie - it can be lonely and discouraging. You hear "no" more than "yes." So getting the Willie Morris Award felt like the biggest yes in the world. Apart from the trip to New York and the cash prize - both of which were just incredible - that the sudden, unexpected, vote of affirmation was life changing.
2. From a craft perspective, can you talk about how you decided to structure LAST RIDE TO GRACELAND with two alternating narratives? Cory retraces her mother's journey from Memphis to South Carolina, and we also learn about her mother, Honey, through Honey's diary entries. Was this the sort of decision that became clear while revising a draft, or did you envision the dual mother-daughter narratives from the start?
In a way LAST RIDE TO GRACELAND is about how daughters never really know their mothers - or at least we don't know our mothers as young girls. We can't imagine them as 19, and knocked up, and terrified and driving out of Graceland in the middle of the night in a big black muscle car. So I always knew I wanted to have both voices in the novel and use a structure that cut between Cory Beth's journey in 2016 and Honey's journey in 1977.
It was tricky to do because I ended up rotating the voices for every stop on the trip - first we'd see Cory Beth in Fairhope, and then Honey in Fairhope, and so on for all five states they crossed between South Carolina and Tennessee. I ended up writing all of one woman's story and then all of the other's and doing sort of a slice and dice between the two POVs. It took lots of drafts before I got it smoothed out so that both stories had their own flow and story arc.
But I'm happy I did it that way. The book starts out as Cory Beth's attempt to find out who her father is but it's really about her finding out who her mother was. And the Honey who spent that one wild year at Graceland is nothing like the mama who raised her!
3. You have written about food, and travel, and your articles have appeared in magazines such as Vogue and Wine Spectator. How did--and how does-- your career as a journalist inform your fiction writing? Different set of muscles, right?
I miss journalism. You're so right about it using a different set of muscles and I really loved traveling for research and interviewing people. Nonfiction gets you out into the world, going places and learning new stuff, while writing novels is more about getting your butt in the seat and living inside your own head for months at a stretch. If I had my druthers I'd still do both but nonfiction writing, especially magazines, took a major hit when the internet became people's go-to source for information. Nine different markets I wrote for literally all either went out of business or went strictly on-line in the course of a year and that's what really nudged me into fiction full time. I was like "Huh, I guess I'm a novelist now."
4. Can you talk about how you decided to embark on writing your debut novel, LOVE IN MID AIR, published in 2011? Did the idea come to you gradually or all at once? [I love what Kirkus had to say about it: "A modern take on adultery that does not shy away from the costs—and benefits—of a post-marriage life."]
Those were nice words from Kirkus, which is often so grumpy! I wanted to write about a woman who walks out on a "good" marriage and the fallout in creates in not only her life but that of her friends. It had always struck me that society allows women to end marriages if they're married to an abuser or an alcoholic or a cheater - but that's pretty much it. Otherwise you're expected to count your blessings and hang on, no matter how miserable you might be. So I wanted to tell the story of a woman who slowly gathers up her gumption to ask for a divorce from her inattentive husband and to also trace the shockwaves it created in their suburban social group.
5. The protagonist in your novel THE UNEXPECTED WALTZ takes up ballroom dancing to rebuild her life. Did your own interest in ballroom dancing come first--or did you discover it when you "researched" dancing for the novel?
I was dancing before. I'm a fool for tango. And a dance studio has so many wacky people in it, and brings together so many ages and nationalities that it struck me it would be a great backdrop for a novel. I stole a lot from real life for that book and I was actually a little nervous about it coming out. I was sure my dance buddies would recognize themselves and each other and be ticked. But as it turned out, they loved it. I had my launch party at the studio and dedicated the book to Max, my long suffering 27-year-old Siberian dance instructor.
6. What is a typical writing day for you? Do you write in the morning? Coffee? Or evening with wine? Or both! Do you always write on the computer or do you ever write in longhand? In public places, or always in your own space? Do you tend to bang out a fast first draft and revise, or do you write and edit as you go? I'm getting at writing rituals here, which I find fascinating.
Totally a morning writer. My motto is "If you win the morning, you win the day." I compose on the computer and my biggest quirk is that I like to work in public. So I take my laptop to coffeeshops or restaurants a lot. I'm a regular at a local Chili's where I show up about 11, get a salad and bang out a thousand words.
I'm also not someone who works all day. I'm fascinated by binge writers - people who hole up for ten hours at a stretch. I write about two hours a day and after that, it's diminishing returns for me. But I do write almost every day. There's maybe 5 days a year I don't open the file of my WIP. It's like brushing my teeth. I just get up and do it.
I usually try to get the whole first draft out before I go back and revise. It's easy to get lost in revision....to start messing around with words and paragraphs and losing the narrative steam. So I try to get either the whole thing or at least whole sections done before I let myself go back and read them.
7. Your favorite contemporary authors? Top five.
I love Tom Perotta, Ann Patchett, TC Boyle for general fiction. Kate Atkinson and Louise Penny for mysteries.
8. What makes southern writing different from other regions?
Southern writing is ALL about the voice. I don't think it has as much to do with setting or theme as it does with emulating the southern method of storytelling, which is born out of an oral tradition. You know, grandpa on the porch starting a long, winding tale of his youth or some gossipy matrons at the church raking some poor girl over the coals. It's conversational, it's confessional, it kind of has a rambling, non-linear style with all sorts of asides and observations tossed into the narrative. So I like to say it's not about the where, who, or why and all about the how. Writers from all over the country tackle issues like race, faith, family, and the bonds of the past - but they sure don't do it in the same way we southerners do.
9. What you are working on now?
I've just finished a novel called SUMMER OF THE VIRGINS about an attorney who works with high profile sex-trafficking cases but has no idea her own daughter, who is a star student in an expensive prep school, is being harassed by the most popular boy in her class. And the third woman in their household is a exchange student from the middle east who'd enjoyed all the freedoms of being an American coed but who at the end of the summer will go back and marry the boy her parents chose for her in childhood. It's three ways of looking at how women become trapped - especially sexually trapped - and how we always think that danger comes from far away, from outsiders and strangers, but might actually be very close at hand.
10. How do you balance social media with creativity? Do Twitter and Facebook, for example, challenge your focus or are they not a problem? Do you segment your time so social media, email, and technology don't interfere with writing?
Social media can be the biggest time suck in the world. Like most writers, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with online interactions. We're certainly expected to have a media presence but it can take away from your writing time. The only advice I have is that you can't do it all. I do Facebook and Twitter and that's bad enough. If I took up everything else I'd probably never write again. And I never never never look online in the morning. If I'm going to waste an hour I'll be darned if I steal it from my peak writing time. So I go on in the afternoon and interact for about twenty minutes a day. It's also weird for me because I have a policy of not reading peer reviews. I just won't go on Goodreads. It's like the mean girls' table in high school all over again!
Kim Wright, center, in angelic white, flanked by fellow writers and previous Willie Morris Award winners. From left, Mindy Friddle, Katherine Clark, Terry Roberts, Amy Greene and Stephen Wetta.