Kathryn Winograd is the author of six books, and her essays have been noted in Best American Essays, and published in numerous journals and anthologies. Her poetry has received three Pushcart Prize nominations and been published in places as diverse as The New Yorker and Cricket Magazine. She currently teaches for Regis University’s Mile High MFA.
Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
Fossilized butterfly wings, eight-eyed funnel spiders, caldera volcanoes, miscreant poodles and wayward February calves, prayer trees and skyglow: after living since the early 2000s at the back side of Pikes Peak and in the shadow of a mountain miners dubbed Nipple Mountain, I found it hard not to be inspired to write this collection of essays. How can you resist writing about a place where Indian princesses in phantom canyons are said to still bewail their lost loves and neighbors in yurts warn you about ghost grizzlies?
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
The tipping point for me in writing this collection was when my mother moved from Ohio to live seven minutes away from our Littleton home so that I could help her through the transitions of advanced age, progressive blindness, and long widowhood. My favorite essays spring from driving my mother, who had a wonderful dry Ohioan sense of humor, around Teller county to visit the very gold mines, quarries and canyons I was writing about. “There’s nothing here,” she would say. Or “Not another yellow leaf!” The threads of my mother’s voice and her stories became important parts of these essays.
Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
“Skyglow” is one of the last essays in “Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children.” I wrote the essay after my mom had settled into Denver and we had started a companionable routine together. My mother was rapidly losing her sight at this point, and, at the same time, my husband and I were thick into our summer observation of the stars up at the cabin.
I had read statistics before on how few people in the world have the opportunity to see even the Milky Way at night. I began to see connections between that night blindness and my mother’s blindness. And then I asked my mother if she remembered a poem by John Keats about stars.
My mother, who had never shared with me her love for poetry, literally leapt up from her chair, sped to a tiny bookcase that housed the last of her books, and handed me “A Little Treasury of Poetry,” inscribed by her mother, my grandmother. Bookmarked and annotated years ago was Keats’ poem, “Bright Star.” Thus began “Skyglow.”
Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write the book?
Have you ever gotten a dope-slap from the universe? I think it was the second year of my 10-year stint teaching for Ashland University’s low residency MFA program that I found myself sitting at the back of an auditorium listening to a creative nonfiction writer read when I had a completely visceral reaction to what I was hearing.
I started out as a poet, but listening to that creative nonfiction writer cracked my poet heart open. I think I scratched down more notes those 10 years from that same auditorium than any creative nonfiction student attending the program. Gaps and white space, metaphor and juxtaposition, and deep imagery were the constant poetry companions I could take on this new journey.
This book comes from listening to and studying a widening sea of diverse voices, forms, and intentions. And the note-taking continues: This summer, my Regis University MFA students and I read Carmen Maria Machado’s beautiful fragmented memoir, “In the Dream House,” and Tiya Miles’ awe-inspiring book of research and narrative speculation, “All That She Carried: A Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake.”
Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?
Since my book is a collection of essays, rather than a narrative, my concerns were over how the essays linked together and worked as a whole. While each essay explores a different facet of what I discovered near the edges of Phantom Canyon and Shelf Road, each essay follows in its own way the journey symbolized by my mother’s quest: understanding and accepting the transitory boundaries between life and death that we can sometimes find shadow-cast in the frail shale of quarry we slice open with a butter knife or in the knuckling bloom of a mushroom or in the scattered bones of a fawn.
If anything, the writing of the book surprised me as writing always does: the plasticity of language, how image and word and scene carry within them always the deeper story that it is our job as a writer to excavate and bring into the light.
What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
The biggest challenge for me was to keep the faith when writing. Though most of the essays in this collection were published in literary journals after their transformation from Beacon columns, I still struggled over whether what I was writing was worthwhile. I had given myself the challenge of braiding these essays together — a braid made up of these places and things, environmental issues and history, and always that last thread, of the discovery of something deeper, something metaphoric. For me, ultimately, yes — the book allowed me to make peace with old family mysteries and half-truths.
There are those challenges when writing a book and then there are those challenges when publishing a book: I finished the book, sent it out to a small press I found on the Poets and Writers website and to a contest the day I decided I had finished the book just to put the final “period” on it.
I received a resounding yes from Saddle Road Press within a few days. The editors were wonderful to work with. And then we put out the book in March of 2020, just at the start of the pandemic. It was a sad season of getting calendar dings on my computer for each book event that was cancelled.
I am thankful for the book winning a bronze medal in essay from the 2020 Independent Publisher Book Awards and being a Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards finalist and, of course, a Colorado Author League awards finalist.
Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
This very moment, I am sitting on our cabin porch listening to a beautiful summer storm douse our metal roof. I try to write where it is beautiful and quiet, whether that be here, among the hummingbirds and chipmunks, or in my study at home overlooking the old pines and ash trees someone else planted some 50 years ago.
I’ve known writers to light candles to the muses, to go through intricate rituals before writing. My biggest job is simply to sit down and start writing. Anything. Writing a journal or an odd ball, off-the-cuff, do-something-that-seems-crazy writing prompt so often leads to completely unexpected treasures.
I do confess that I am not a free-wheeling, get-everything-down-first kind of writer. I am somewhat anal, if I can use that word here, and agonize over sentence after sentence. I love the process of writing best when I’ve finally written that first draft and now have the luxury to go back over everything for the large and the small editing processes. That’s when I began to understand what I’ve written.
How did you know when this book was finished?
In general, I begin to realize that anything I’ve written is done when I find myself cutting and pasting the same things over and over again. Or, sometimes, in the writing of a piece, I have a gut feeling that an image or scene I’ve written is in fact the ending I am writing toward and so I go toward that ending.
In this particular collection, I found myself torn over the ending essay. I thought clearly that the ending was “Skyglow,” but then, during the time I was writing this collection, my dogs and I kept stumbling over tiny newborn calves hidden by their mothers in the icy grass of February. That led to the writing of “The Calves of Winter,” which seemed like a perfect ending, too. Then my husband said, “I think you should write a ‘Coda,’” and I did.
Tell us about your next project.
A chapbook of poems, written during the first spring of the pandemic, “Flying Beneath the Dog Star: Poems from a Pandemic.” After “Slow Arrow” was “launched” and we were quarantined, I moved up to the cabin. It was April, National Poetry Month. I wrote a poem every day for the month of April, using the prompts of NaPoWriMo.
The month up, I submitted a chapbook to the 2020 Open Chapbook Contest by Finishing Line Press. Didn’t win it, but the chapbook was a semi-finalist and Finishing Line asked to publish it. Come fall, I will be working with the editors to ready that book for publication for January 2022 and hoping to scare up presales.
In addition, publications like “Brevity Online,” “Beautiful Things” by “River Teeth Journal,” “One Word, an anthology of short essays by writers on words they love or loathe” have sparked in me a wish to write the flash nonfiction piece/proem/poem. A Denver poet and I have started using prompts we’ve found and sending each other what we write. We’ll see what direction this new writing project takes.