Vladimir Horowitz, Sydney Omarr, and me

Four weeks from tonight, I’ll be participating in an unusual fund-raising event for Humanities Washington called “Bedtime Stories.” Along with authors Jim Lynch, Heather McHue, Charles Johnson, Jamie Ford, and Garth Stein, I’ll be reading a short story called “You Awake?” that I wrote in response to the prompt “12:01.”

For details about Humanities Washington, please visit their website at: www.humanities.org.

Andrew Wahl, the Communications Director of Humanities Washington, asked each participating author to respond to a series of interview questions in advance of the event. I’m sharing that Q&A here:

Before writing, your résumé included periods working as a musician and an actress. Which medium has been the most satisfying to you as an artist?

I can’t say that one was more satisfying than the other; each of those former identities continues to influence, instruct, and nourish me.

One notable difference is that I was terribly anxious about performing as a musician, far more than I ever was as an actor. I was extremely hard on myself, a terrible perfectionist, but that might be because I started playing piano when I was a child; I didn’t come to the theatre until I was a young adult.

Shakespeare – who remains my best teacher – writes like a musician, and by that I mean that he writes with a brilliant understanding of how all the elements of music contribute to story-telling and character development; how the sounds and rhythms of speech have their own emotional weight, quite apart from meaning; and how the great power of language lies in its muscularity, its physicality. He also writes with this brilliant overarching awareness of the whole, knowing for example how to build and sustain a climatic moment and then lead an audience safely down and away from that intense pinnacle. Listening to Shakespeare is very like listening to a symphony. I’m not sure this will make sense to everyone, but music and acting and writing coalesce for me through Shakespeare in a way that inspires me like nothing else.

My agent, interestingly, is a consummate musician, with a master’s degree in Conducting and Composing from Yale. He once went to bat for me over a piece of prose in my first novel. It was near the end of the book, and not terribly long, but it didn’t do anything to further the plot, and for that reason my editor wanted to cut it. When I defended that section on a musical basis – saying I felt it was necessary in order to cradle, quiet, and emotionally steady the reader after an intensely emotional and climatic scene – the same way a composer like Copland does in “Appalachian Spring” or Rachmaninoff does in his piano concertos – my agent instantly understood. The section stayed in, and I should add that in the end, my editor was very glad. She told me recently that it’s a section readers frequently reference as one of their favorites.

On your Web site, stephaniekallos.com, you say you came “out of the closet as a writer.” What led you to make that leap?

It wasn’t so much a leap as it was a long, slow succession of very tiny baby steps over the course of several decades.

The first thing I ever wanted to be was a writer, and I stated that intent in a Mattel Toy Company contest essay submitted when I was seven years old. I’ve always written (diaries, journals, bad poetry, short stories, monologues, plays) but for many years – a mercy for all concerned – I hid those writings in an increasing number of file cabinets.

The initial nudge to come out of the closet came with the birth of my first son. I was still a working actor then, as well as a teacher. I don’t think one can really know, before becoming a parent, what will feel comfortable in terms of one’s work life; for me, the idea of going off to the theatre at night – missing that long, sweet sweep of rituals involved in putting a baby to bed – no longer held the slightest allure. The first concrete step I took was to settle Noah on a blanket on my office floor – he was about four months old at the time – and write formal letters of withdrawal from the three acting unions to which I belonged.

After that, I followed the advice of Julia Cameron in her amazing book The Artists’ Way and, among other things, started writing affirmations around that old, deep intent to become a writer – or rather, to begin sharing my writing, because – as we all know – although writing is a solitary pursuit, its end game involves connecting to a community of readers.

Quiet but remarkable things began to happen. Unexpected opportunities began to accumulate. And this is where I must share a quote, attributed (perhaps erroneously, but no matter) to Goethe:

“The moment at which one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no one could have dreamed would have come one’s way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.”

My husband’s best friend – a writer – moved to Seattle from Atlanta; during the several months he lived with us he suggested that we get together each Saturday and read whatever we’d written that week. I wrote a play and arranged a staged reading, and as a result of that experience was commissioned by the Seattle Children’s theatre to write an adaptation of PINNOCHIO. An old actor friend from grad school started a writer’s group; I remained with that group for thirteen years, and it was through their generous emotional support and wise, kind, critical input that I became a better and more confident writer. That led me to start submitting short stories for publication, getting rejected, and eventually published.

My agent’s assistant found me by reading a short story that was published in an online literary journal on January 1, 2003; I signed with my agent two months later, acquired a publishing contract in April, and my first novel was published in 2004.

The distance between writing I want to be a writer because it’s the kind of job that lets you stay home with your husband and babies to publication was forty years. I wish I could have come out of that closet sooner, but what can I say? I’m a late bloomer.

Both of your novels have been met with a great deal of critical praise. How has that success changed your life, professionally and personally?

Publication and praise definitely qualify as what one of my writer friends calls “a better set of problems.” I’m deeply grateful that I’m finally doing the thing I’ve wanted to do since I was a child, but moving one’s writing life into public view does create new challenges.

Personally, not much has changed. I certainly haven’t experienced a leap in the paycheck department, and I work consciously to keep tethered to family obligations and a regular routine. Staying grounded with things like bill-paying, grocery shopping, kid-schlepping, cooking, laundry, etc. becomes ever more important the more one acquires a public identity. It doesn’t behoove one to feel special, because – in spite of whatever critical praise or financial success one accrues, writing – the job of a writer – is always the same. It never changes, and it is never glamorous.

No magic cloak descends upon you once you’re published; you’re not fitted with a jewel-studded monarchial crown that insures unlimited output, escalating success, the Pulitzer Prize, a slot on the NYT best seller list. You don’t walk around feeling superior once you’ve had the good fortune of receiving favorable reviews, nice blurbs, a “Today Show” endorsement, and numbers that put you in the “bestseller” category. Neither is there a sudden infusion of confidence or faith. I struggle pretty much on a daily basis with what Van Gogh called the meagerness, Peter Sellers called The Blacks, and I call The Spooks.

The bottom line is this: you still have to apply the seat of your pants to the seat of the chair. The learning curve for novelists especially is long, possibly never-ending, and for me at least it’s a constant exercise in re-inventing the wheel.

Another thing: once you’re published, you lose your innocence in a very real way. You become aware of things you never even knew existed, much less cared about: things like sales figures, Amazon ratings, customer reviews, Google Alerts. You start taking note of prizes and awards – especially when your friends get them. You wonder why you’re not invited to certain literary events, why your name doesn’t get a checkmark next to it in the “Readings” section of your local newspaper. These kinds of distractions are truly toxic – not to mention perpetual – and it requires great mental discipline to patrol and defend the borderlines of the mind against this kind of assault.

One final and relatively new challenge all of us wrestle with these days is the fact that we’re only a couple of keystrokes away from our public lives vis a vis email, Facebook, Twitter, etc. It takes tremendous discipline to sit at the keyboard and avoid going “over there” when your hands slow down – instead of sitting patiently and waiting, staring out the window, daydreaming, stretching, winding yarn, chopping garlic, moving laundry from the washer to the dryer…whatever it is that keeps you connected to the inner workings of your own imagination, quiet and submerged and engaged with whatever world you’re trying to bring to life.

Kurt Vonnegut said, “Being a professional [writer] means you don’t have bad days.” I don’t think he meant by this that there aren’t days when everything you write is crap; I think he’s speaking to the discipline of showing up, every day, with undivided commitment. It means being in it with all your heart. Whether or not you “feel” like writing is completely irrelevant.

Being a professional also means that, even if everything you wrote on Monday was crap, you must believe that something different might happen on Tuesday, or Saturday, or next week, or next month. Not showing up is what makes you a non-professional. And not showing up becomes tempting if you believe your own good reviews and/or spend too much time asserting your presence on the web.

What does a typical work day look life for you now?

It depends on where I am in the process of working on a book. The early stage is what I call “woolgathering” – an experience I finally got to enjoy for real when I was in North Wales with my family several years ago: you wander around these big, open fields, keeping your eyes open, occasionally plucking a tuft of wool out of the air, or from a reed or a fence or a thistle. During this phase, I’m not at my desk for more than a couple of hours: I’m reading, daydreaming, journaling, researching, looking at photos, talking walks and thinking about the book – the writer’s equivalent of sketching. It’s a big shift after the extremely logical process of revisions; I’ve learned that I have to consciously force myself into a renewed state of not-knowing, what Buddhists call “beginner’s mind.”

Once I get into actually working on the first draft of a manuscript, I’ll start sitting at my desk for longer periods of time, around three hours usually, and during the day when my kids are at school. I still build in periods of woolgathering; I do this by keeping both longhand and typed journals for every novel I write; these serve as toy bins where I can continue to play with ideas in a free, unformatted, and unpressured way. I’m also a faithful transcribed of dreams, and I take walks with a notepad and pen in my pocket.

The biggest work and the real marathon sessions begin once my editor comes on board; she’s very much a collaborator. At that point the clock starts ticking; there’s more of an imperative to meet deadlines and push to the finish. My editor and I typically make two or three passes through a book over the course of 4-5 months before signing off on it.

Throughout the entire process, it’s very important to get up and away from the desk now and then if a break is called for, whatever helps you reboot, refresh. I walk, run errands, knit, take myself to the pool or a movie matinee, visit a thrift store, etc. It’s a tricky balance and you have to be very honest with yourself, i.e. do I really need a break or am I avoiding the work?

For me there’s always a danger of making writing a punitive exercise. It was a problem I had as a musician as well, feeling as though the more hours I spent at the piano the more likely I was to earn a place in heaven. Not a healthy attitude, obviously, but one quite common among those of us who are hard-wired for guilt.

I heard the great pianist Vladamir Horowitz address this issue once: he told an auditorium of Julliard students that one can only practice productively, with absolute concentration, for three hours a day. Period. Anything beyond that three hour limit is counterproductive. I think that’s terrific advice. Being kind to yourself as a writer needs to go hand-in-hand with being disciplined.

Writing is a solitary craft. When working on a novel, do you feel isolated? Or what do you do to get out and stay connected?

Solitude and the occasional feeling of isolation are defining elements of the gig. I do think it helps to be an introvert, i.e. someone who derives occasional joy but reliable sustenance from being alone. I grew up as an only child and was expected to entertain myself for long periods of time; some of my earliest and fondest memories involve riding my tricycle, walking in the woods, and having tea parties in the company of imaginary friends.

But yes, as I said in answer to the previous question, there is a definite need to balance that solitude with times of connection – and some of my best ideas come when I get up from the desk and let my mind and body relax through doing something. If the imagination starts to sense that you’re in punitive mode (I’m going to sit at this desk all day dammit because that’s what real writers do!) it will reliably shut down.

I get away from my desk at least once a day because I’m a latté addict, typically walking early in the morning the two miles to and from my neighborhood Starbucks, where I write in my longhand journal.

As I get farther into the revision process, I’ll often take my work out into the world. It’s a nice way to change things up and reinforce the subtle hat-changing that one has to do at different times during the process.

Because I still have kids at home, I don’t have much of a choice about staying connected to the world, thank goodness; I expect there will be a huge period of adjust however once I’m facing that empty nest. Family life is the grit in the oyster shell; I think it’s good to need to write, to fight for your writing time.

However, occasionally there’s a need to have periods of total submersion; for me this involves taking a vow of silence. For me, there’s no gift in the world like being able to go through an entire writing day without speaking to anyone – and that’s next to impossible of course if you have a husband and teenagers to boss around. I’ve been deeply grateful to places like Hedgebrook and Ragdale for offering me these kinds of opportunities. Not speaking aloud for long periods of time allows me to hear a deeper language – the one I need to access in order to submerge in whatever story I’m trying to tell.

Of course, at the end of such days, it’s important to enjoy a really fine meal, good wine, and engaging company.

Both of your novels deal with coming to terms with the past. What is it about that theme that speaks to you as a writer?

When I was growing up, I was a faithful reader of my horoscope, which at that time was edited by a man named Sydney Omarr. Every day, he included an IF TODAY IS YOUR BIRTHDAY section. And every year (I know because I scissored out these sections and saved them), the entry for my birthday said something like this: “You were on your own early, and were psychologically or actually separated from one or both parents at a relatively young age.” That separation – which I did indeed feel keenly – arose in part from not knowing much about my parents’ early lives, from not being told family stories.

Because my parents both came from very humble beginnings, I know that they were in part ashamed of their early, underprivileged lives, of things that happened to them as a result of being not only poor but also members of ethnic minorities that hadn’t been long in the States. My father especially – as a first-generation Greek-American – was very out of place in the American Midwest.

Like many of their generation, my parents didn’t talk about the past. They set about reinventing themselves – and they did, magnificently, with travel and education and involvement in the arts, building over the fifty-four year course of their marriage a truly extraordinary new life together.

And yet, I longed for stories of who they used to be, yearned to know what their past lives were like – as well as the lives of their parents and grandparents and cousins, because I rightly suspected that those lives were very different from the one that was being painstakingly built for me: a nice, comfortable, financially secure life in the suburbs, a life that didn’t include other languages or ethnic cooking or Greek Orthodoxy or the German Lutheran Church or hand-me-downs; an abundant, thoroughly American life that looked ever-forward, never back.

The fact that there was this huge disparity between my parents’ early identities and their re-invented selves has always intrigued me. I’m not sure that they ever did come to terms with their past – it wasn’t something that people of their generation and background did. And maybe that’s why I took it on, why it’s such a compelling theme.

I do very much hope to one day write stories that have been spun out of what few details I have related to family history. Finally doing so would be one way to heal that old, deep-seated feeling of separation.

How is the third novel coming? Anything you want to share about its plot or themes?

In May, I completed the first draft of my third novel; it took a little over one year to write, which is a personal best. (This speeded-up production schedule, I have to confess, arose not out of inspiration but need. A book I’d been working on for two years – based on historical characters I’ve been fascinated with for fifteen – was soundly rejected by my publisher in April of last year – proving once again that having a decent publication history is no protection against rejection.)

The main character is a fifty-eight-year-old high school Language Arts teacher, a divorced father of two. His eldest son, who has a severe, low-functioning form of autism, will soon be a legal adult and age-out of state supported care; his other child, a daughter, is about to head off to college in NYC. The story moves back and forth in time between this present set of circumstances and 1962-63, when the main character’s family life was in turmoil, and he became close friends with a “retarded” 3rd grade classmate. The friendship ended with a horrific incident for which the main character feels responsible.

The book is specifically concerned with issues of mid-life, and the emotional challenges of “empty nesters” – challenges I’ll be facing soon enough. It’s also about parenthood, how every parent, no matter what their child is like, has to face and grapple with the divide between the person you hoped to be as a parent and the person you are, the loss of cherished illusions surrounding that parental role.

I suppose there are now familiar themes in my books: how we sometimes become trapped in old versions of themselves, how we carry around badges of guilt and/or shame based on past actions, how – no matter how enlightened we become – there’s always a strong pull to recreate ad infinitum the family dynamic we grew up with. Changing those old habits, vacating those familiar-if-damaging roles, bypassing that potent hard-wiring; it’s difficult work indeed.

Ann Patchett has famously posited that every writer has really only one story to tell, a story so powerful that they have no choice but to tell it over and over again in slightly altered ways. It often takes a close friend or colleague to give us a clear perspective on what that “one story” is about. In a recent conversation with my editor, she said, “You always take us deep down into the rabbit hole. But you also always lead us back up and out of that dark place, back into the light.” I suppose as one of my sources of pre-occupation – and in terms of what I hope to offer the readers who are generous and brave enough to take these journeys with me – that sounds about right.

How about a hint about the short story you’ll be unveiling at Bedtime Stories?

When the theme was announced – and for reasons aligning less with Walt Disney and more with family history and my enduring fascinations with magic, personal reinvention, and footwear – my mind immediately went to the Cinderella story.

I thought, Oh great. That’s so trite. I’m sure everybody else is going to be writing some riff on the Cinderella story and they’ll do it far more brilliantly than me. Isn’t there anything more radical, more unique, more out there in an Aimee Bender-ish Lorrie Moore-ish way that I can come up with in response to the 12:01 prompt?!

I circled the wagons around another couple of ideas but found that I was unable to steer myself in any other direction. This both displeased and worried me.

Then, driving on I-5 South last month on the way to pick up one of my kids from summer camp, I saw something that was so weirdly supportive of my Cinderella musings that I took it as a sign from the Universe. There, I realized at one, was my closing image, a destination for the narrative.

So that’s how the story was created: back-to-front, imagining a rewind from that final image.

I won’t tell you what it was, but I will say that it involves shoes.