Kristin Bair O'Keeffe
Kristin Bair O'Keeffe grew up in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania. She has a B.A. in English and journalism from Indiana University and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Columbia College Chicago. Her articles and essays have been published in Poets & Writers Magazine, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Baltimore Review, San Diego Family Magazine, The Gettysburg Review, and elsewhere. Her column—The Fiction Writing Workshop—appears monthly in the popular ezine Writers on the Rise. In 2008, her work was translated into Chinese and published in China's most popular weekly news magazine, Oriental Outlook Weekly, and she is featured in the Bylines 2009 Writers' Desk Calendar. She lives in Shanghai, China, with her husband and daughter where she writes, teaches fiction and nonfiction writing, blogs about her adventures (and misadventures) around the world, and curates Out Loud! The Shanghai Writers Literary Salon. Visit her website.
Read Judy's review of Thirsty for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by Judy Miller
Posted on 11/14/2009
Thirsty is beautifully written. The themes of domestic abuse, despair, hope, and courage run throughout it. How did you come up with the story lines and characters?
I have a history of domestic violence in my family so I've done a good bit of thinking about it over the years, both personally and as a writer. As I've moved through the world, I've witnessed how being a victim of domestic violence often is passed from mother to daughter...like pearls or a wedding dress. This cycle of abuse—along with the idea of genetic memory—tweaked my storytelling curiosity early on. In writing Thirsty, I wanted to explore the mother-daughter dynamic, how a young woman gets involved in an abusive relationship in the first place, why some women manage to leave abusive relationships behind, and why others simply cannot. The more I wrote and discovered, the more I realized how tender and complicated these situations are. As I wrote Klara's story, I kept coming to the question of courage: "What is it? Who has it? Who can get it? What does it look like? And finally, can Klara ever find the courage to leave Drago?"
What inspired you to write Thirsty? How did your 1987 poem, "Crumbling Steeples," lead to the novel?
Two things: my family history with domestic violence and my family connection to the steel industry. I grew up in a suburb of Pittsburgh, and my maternal grandparents lived just down the road a bit in Clairton, one of Pittsburgh's most dynamic steel communities. In the 1960s and 1970s, I spent a lot of time at their house with the smokestacks of the mills bearing down and barges hauling steel along the Monongahela River. My grandfather and great uncles worked in the steel mills so it was a big part of our family story. When the steel industry collapsed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, so did Pittsburgh's steel communities. At that point, the storyteller in me jumped up and said, "Ooohh, there's something to be told here."
Before I wrote fiction, I wrote poetry. 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. After I wrote it, I thought I was done writing about Pittsburgh and steel. Obviously I was wrong; the poem was just the beginning.
You said that Klara began to take shape as you wrote your first scene, "the solution to her story might seem simple—an abused woman should leave her husband immediately—but like most things in life, it's much more complicated than that. The more I got to know Klara, the more I understood her side of things." How long did it take for Klara to evolve? Can you explain this?
It took me nearly seven years to write (and rewrite and rewrite) Thirsty. I had a complete draft after three years, but I didn't fully understand Klara at that point and I was still working very hard to control her story. (For a long time, I wanted her to behave the way I wanted her to behave. She was much more vulnerable and much angrier than I wanted her to be.) But writing doesn't work that way. Thirsty wasn't my story; it was Klara's. I needed to step out of her way, let her make her own choices and decisions, and get out of my head and into hers. Once I did, I was able to finish the book.
This is your first novel. What did you find most difficult as you wrote Thirsty?
- I was determined to be honest about the violence perpetrated against Klara and Sky by their husbands. The scenes of abuse in Thirsty are graphic and tough. It hurt to write them and not be able to help Klara and Sky...and to know that so many women around the world go through similar pain and humiliation every day.
- As a poet, I am obsessed with language, rhythm of sentences, word choice, etc. I read everything I write out loud (over and over and over). I wanted to make sure every sentence in Thirsty was perfect so I read this book out loud...a gazillion times. Even at the editing stage with my editor at Swallow Press, I was reading random sentences out loud and making last-minute changes.
You live in Shanghai, China. Were you able to/did you draw similarities between Shanghai today and the steel town of Thirsty at the turn of the century? If so, what similarities did you find?
I wrote Thirsty long before I moved to China, but oddly enough, I feel that I've gotten to know Klara even better than before. Like Klara, I was plunked into a new country in which I didn't speak the language or understand the culture. This is an isolating experience that makes you depend a great deal on the people closest to you. Luckily I have a terrific husband who made my transition to life in China easier; Klara didn't have that support system.
Also, believe it or not, Shanghai today is strangely similar to Pittsburgh in the late nineteenth century. Some of the similarities—like the pollution—aren't so great, but others are terrific. For example, there are street hawkers in Thirsty—at one point the button man pulls a cart past Klara and Drago's house and calls out his wares—and although you don't find this kind of thing in the United States today, I see it every day on my street in Shanghai. The knife-sharpener, the guy who mends your shoes, the odds-and-ends seller, the recycler, etc.—they all pull carts and call out their wares or services. This is one of my favorite things in China. (You can see some of life on my street in Shanghai on this YouTube video.)
How would you would you describe your writing process? What is your workday like?
I've always been an extremely disciplined writer (some would say a little obsessive, but I like the term "extremely disciplined"). For years I rolled out of bed somewhere around 5:00 a.m., stumbled into my office, fell into my chair, and wrote for 5, 6, 8 hours. But in 2008 I became a mom, and my routine flew (happily) out the window. Now I work as much as I can before my daughter wakes, then spend the mornings with her. I work in the afternoons during her naps and for a few hours afterward when I have childcare help. I also work after she goes to bed. It's definitely a big change for me and I've had to adapt how I write, but being a mom is so worth it.
What's on the horizon regarding future writing projects?
I've got two big projects on my plate: a memoir about falling in love, moving to China, and becoming a mom—and a second novel.