Sunday, October 29, 2006

One Writer's Process: Kathe Koja

The moment you open one of Kathe Koja's award-winning books, you'll find yourself racing to keep up with the words as they fly off the page.

A master of pacing, Koja's novels for young adults, which include Straydog, Buddha Boy, Blue Mirror, Talk--and her newest, Going Under--rely on a stream-of-consciousness voice to carry readers deep into the narrator's psyche.

"One of the reasons I love that stream-of-consciousness voice," Koja has written, "(not that I have any choice in using it! that's me, that's the way I write) is how you are seeing, experiencing, fearing, etc., whatever the narrator is: you get the experience just as the narrator gets it. I love that, as a writer and as a reader. When I read, I want to become someone else, live his/her life as s/he lives it in the story, so that's the experience I want my readers to have as well."

As a result of her intense focus on voice, Koja's books are marvels of interior voices, pulling readers deep inside her characters so that readers do "get the experience just as the narrator gets it."

Recently, Koja was kind enough to share her thoughts on writing with Wordswimmer.

Wordswimmer: If writing is like swimming... how do you get into the water each day?

Koja: Routine. You gotta do your laps each day, whether you feel like it or not. One of my patron saints, Flannery O'Connor, talks about making sure you're in that chair every day, whether you're able to get much down on paper or not. You don't do anything else for your allotted worktime: no phone calls, e-mail, fooling around with assorted family members (two- or four-legged), etc., etc. You just sit there and try to work. Because that's how the job gets done.

Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat... for short work? For longer work?

Koja: Short work is easy. Long work is easy, too. What's difficult is trying to work on anything (novel, letter to the editor, e-mail, anything!) when it isn't right: the right idea, the right time, the right format, or any combination of the above. I've wasted many, many months on novels that just weren't right, no matter how hard I tried to make them be. Which taught me to let the material be my guide. If I'm feeling stressed or bored, well, there's a reason for that. Sometimes it's fixable, sometimes it's not. Which leads me to...

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

Koja: ... creative dry spells. In my own experience, what felt most painfully like writer's block was really that inability to identify when a project wasn't working, and just back off: for now, or forever.

There are commercial dry spells, too, which can be quite debilitating, especially when you make all of your living from your writing, as I do. The only way I've ever found to weather them was just to keep going and stay true to the work, believing that it will find its way. I don't think that trying to write specifically for a perceived market is the best route to producing superior fiction. Besides, there are much, much easier ways to make a buck than by writing books.

Wordswimmer: How do you find the pace when swimming in a story?

Koja: I think it's intrinsic to whatever you're working on, a natural element of the voice within the story, the character whose viewpoint we follow, like the language or setting or anything else. I didn't deliberately choose for Buddha Boy to move at that speed--the story just went that way! And I think it's also a function of the kind of stream-of-consciousness writing that I do, one thing emerging from the next. It pulls you along, the way our real thoughts do, when you start out thinking, "Gee, where should I eat lunch today?" and end up with Buffalo Bill, or the Empire State Building or a paramecium or something.

Wordswimmer: If it's a fast, breath-taking pace, how do you keep swimming without exhausting yourself... or your readers?

Koja: I think it's exhilirating! I hope readers do, too.

Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?

Koja: Writing is by necessity a solitary occupation. There's a genius essay by Michael Ventura called "The Talent of the Room" (Kelley Eskridge reprinted it on her site: that's the best writing about writing that I've ever read, and when I say "best" I mean "most truthful." He asks the would-be writer "How many years can you spend alone in a room?" for that's what writing really comes down to, the solitude, whether it's encountered in a garret or a coffee shop or wherever.

But when you emerge from the room... I've been very fortunate over the years to have three people who read my work before it goes to market: my husband, Rick Lieder (my first reader for almost 17 years now); my agent and accompanist, Christopher Schelling; and my dear friend, writer Carter Scholz. I know that when I offer what I've done to these three, each response will be different, but each will be filtered through formidable intelligence, and I listen very carefully when they tell me what they think of my work.

On top of that, I'm lucky enough to have Frances Foster for an editor! So once I leave the room with work in hand, I know it will get a thorough and attentive reception.

Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?

Koja: The flow: when the work is going so well your hands can't move fast enough, whether it's the actual writing of the novel or the making notes or the ideas that come on the edge of sleep or in the car or, or, or. That's the best.

For more information about Kathe Koja and her work, visit her website:


jo'r said...

A good discussion by Kathe of her writing style. I visited the site she mentioned for Michael Ventura's "Talent of the Room" essay on writing. Ventura paints an almost forbidding picture of the isolation required in writing, but it can give a daily uplifting shape to a day, too, at least for me. Nevertheless Ventura seems to have some of the agonies nailed.

Carrie Jones said...

This is a lovely post.
Kathe's descriptions are fantastic.
Thank you both for sharing it with us.