Spend more than a few minutes talking to Katrina Kittle and you’ll discover she’s done a bit of everything. She was a middle and high school teacher of English and theatre, has worked as a house cleaner, a vet’s assistant, a children’s theatre director, a costumer, and as case management support for an AIDS resource center. She also has an affinity for dark chocolate and French-press dark coffee with cream, and there’s a special place in her heart for zombie movies.
I was fortunate enough to meet Katrina when we were both in the MFA program at Spalding University, and we spent a residency in a workshop together. That group is still one of the best I recall ever having been a part of–which is saying a lot, considering the caliber of people I met there–and I still remember Katrina as being a generous, insightful writer and a genuinely nice person.
Katrina writes a lot these days–she says she gets grumpy when she goes for extended periods without it–but when she’s not, she enjoys gardening, cooking, traveling, acting, and spending time with animals. Her previous novels, Traveling Light, Two Truths and a Lie, and The Kindness of Strangers, have all received excellent reviews and reader response. The Kindness of Strangers, in fact, won the 2006 Great Lakes Book Award for Fiction.
Katrina’s newest release is The Blessings of the Animals, which released in August of this year. To find out more about her, check out her website at http://katrinakittle.com
Okay, tell me a little bit about Cami Anderson, the protagonist of your new novel, The Blessings of the Animals.
KK: Cami is a veterinarian in her very first year post-divorce. She has this crazy crew of rescue animals and the story is really about how those rescue animals end up rescuing her through that first year with all its grief, anger, and unraveling. Cami is a pretty tough cookie, but her toughness actually gets in the way of her moving forward for a while. She’s determined to protect her teenage daughter from the fallout of this divorce, but in putting on that brave face for her daughter, she forgets to take care of herself. It takes a three-legged cat, an escape-artist goat, and a very violent horse to bring her back to herself.
Think back to when you were trying to get a first novel out of your home and into the world. Is there anything you’d do differently now, knowing what you do about the profession and the industry?
KK: To be honest, I’m glad I didn’t know more about the profession and the industry back when I was first trying to get published! Publishing is a very capricious business and can be very frustrating. It is kind of true that ignorance is bliss. I had educated myself enough to know how to correctly query agents and submit manuscripts but I didn’t know enough to be jaded. I was just ignorant enough to be blissfully optimistic…and that worked for me. Backing up further, when my first novel really started to tug on me to be told, I started from the best possible place: I just started writing. I didn’t do lots of research first (that came later) and I didn’t stall by taking a ton of classes and reading about craft (that came later, too), I just started by committing to putting words on the page.
What is one work of literature that changed your life?
KK: To Kill a Mockingbird was the first book that really opened my eyes to the power a story could hold–the power to change the way people think, the power to make a reader examine her own life. That really changed my life, even though it was long before I had the desire to write a book myself. Once I was a writer, The Poisonwood Bible changed many of perspectives on how to tell a story. It really broke down a lot of limitations I’d set for myself about point-of-view, story structure, and voice.
How about your writing routine? Are you a person who works at the same time every day, or do you keep a less predictable schedule?
KK: My writing really thrives on routine. I’m very good at creating a schedule and then committing to it. Morning is absolutely my best and most creative time. When I was teaching fulltime, I intentionally moved to live five minutes from the school. I’d get up and write from 5 until 7 every morning, then be at work at 8. That sounds brutal, but it made me a better teacher (I’d already done something generous for myself, so I was a more open, giving teacher) and it kept the writing momentum going forward enough until I could really put in serious hours on breaks and summer. Now that I’m able to write fulltime, I keep the school day as my schedule. I’m at the desk by 7:45 (and that’s ready to work, done with Facebook, email, and the crossword) and I put in 3 hours (maybe 4 on a really good day) on the new work-in-progress. After a lunch break, I can edit and revise, do research, correspondence, the marketing/business end of the business. I’ll work until 4:00. It can be hard to be self-employed, and friends and family won’t respect your schedule until you do. I have to treat it like any other job with set hours–otherwise it’s too easy to waste time. I feel so incredibly lucky to rise each day eager to get to the page.
What’s the best advice a writing teacher ever gave you?
KK: That writers write. To simply write your story. You have to get the words on the page. Too many people talk about writing in the abstract and spend all their time studying writing and reading about writing (very very valuable things to do but they are not substitutes for the actual act of writing). Once you have a piece written, no matter how flawed it is, you can make it better–you can revise and hone and polish. You can apply every single thing you learn to that work-in-progress. Until you have words on the page, though, you’ve got nothing. You’ll meet lots of people who say they want to be writers, who talk about the book they’re going to write, but if you actually sit alone in a room and put words on a page, you’re miles ahead of all those wanna-be writers out there.
Anyone who looks at your resume will see that you have a passion for theater. Do your dramatic and writing tendencies complement one another?
KK: Absolutely. I sometimes believe my acting training was the best and most useful training for my writing. Character development is the same whether you’re performing that character or capturing the character on the page. The keys are in understanding the character’s motivation and finding the conflict (without conflict there is no drama). I’m also certain that my written dialogue benefits from my actor-self’s tendency to deliver all my characters’ dialogue aloud! I know what a burden it is as an actor to have to deliver an unnatural or unrealistic piece a dialogue. I try to make sure I don’t burden my written characters with stilted, awkward speech. Also, the theatre background had the added bonus of helping me develop really thick skin when it comes to rejection. I feel fortunate that I view rejection as just part of the game and don’t take as personally or sensitively as some of my writer friends. As a female in theatre, you just learn you’re going to hear “no” more than you hear “yes” at auditions and you just roll with it.
Occasionally, writers say that at least part of their creative process is about working out certain truths for themselves, whether they know it at the time or not. Have you ever learned lessons, perhaps unexpectedly, from any of your characters?
KK: That happens a lot and I try to stay open to it. The very act of realistically motivating all characters-including my antagonists-means that I need to really try to understand them and get inside their heads. This doesn’t mean I condone everything my antagonist does, but I have to understand why they believe what they do is right. Often this will have a ripple effect into my own life. For instance, in Blessings, I decided I needed a point-of-view chapter from Bobby, Cami’s husband. Without his point-of-view I felt he would be too unsympathetic and seem like a big, insensitive jerk! Well, because my own divorce had happened during the writing of this novel (a divorce that was not my choice and a total blind side), this chapter was naturally hard for me to initially delve into. Even though five years distance stood between my divorce and the writing of that chapter, delving into Bobby’s point-of-view really helped me release some of my longheld feelings of anger and betrayal at my own ex-husband. Motivating Bobby helped me find new forgiveness for my ex….and those feelings of release and forgiveness led to a whole new rewrite of the entire novel’s ending.
What are we going to see next from Katrina Kittle?
KK: I’m nearing completion of a young adult novel I’m calling Strange Katy about a girl who can communicate with animals. This is my first foray into young adult so we’ll see how that goes. And I’m in the beginning stages of my next adult novel, which will deal with homelessness and medical bankruptcy, which was inspired by how the face of homelessness is rapidly changing in my community because of the economy. I’m also at work on my first collaboration ever, working with a musician and a dancer on a children’s play.
What writer, living or dead, would you most like to have lunch with, and what question would you most like for that person to answer?
KK: I just adore Barbara Kingsolver and would love to have her come to my garden for lunch. We’d make some fabulous concoction out of what was in season and ready to harvest. You’ll laugh, but I’d rather ask her gardening questions instead of writing questions. I guess I could add Animal, Vegetable, Miracle to books that changed my life. Because of her, I grow a lot of my own food now and it’s become quite the addiction (as well as a necessary part of my writing process-great ideas come to me while weeding, mulching, and pruning). Among my questions for Kingsolver would be how she keeps cabbage worms off her Brussel’s Sprouts and how she keeps her zucchini from succumbing to white mildew and vine borers.
Go here to see more of Katrina’s books.