| Instagram, Interviews

The Processes Behind Poems and Novels: An Interview with Laura Kasischke

As a fiction writer without much of a knack for poetry, I’ve long appreciated writers with a talent for both genres. And when I think of authors who bridge that genre divide, Laura Kasischke is one of the first to come to mind. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Laura for a few years—she taught one of the first fiction classes I ever took—so, in that self-centered way our brains work, I’ve tended to think of her as a storyteller. Her nine published novels would attest to that. But she’s also had an outsized impact on the world of poetry, having published twelve collections of poems to date. 

I recently had the chance to sit down with Laura to talk about her path through these genres and how she succeeds in fitting both types of work into her schedule. Along the way, we also discussed her latest novel, Mind of Winter, her reading interests, and her approaches to the craft of novel writing.

Kevin Binder: Throughout your career, you’ve written prolifically in both poetry and fiction. When you think about your trajectory as an artist, what would you say drew you to and kept you writing in both genres throughout your career?

Laura Kasischke: Well, I actually started out focusing on poetry. I’d written stories in high school, but my first love and what I studied the most was poetry. As an undergrad, I took a fiction class, but I didn’t take it that seriously. The poetry I took seriously. That’s what I focused on for my MFA, and then for five, six, seven years after that, I was just working on one book of poetry.

But I’ve always liked to read novels and short fiction, and so when I was maybe twenty-nine or thirty, I had a summer off for the first time because I had gotten a full-time teaching job, and I thought, “I’m going to write a novel. And I’m just going to write five pages a day until I have a beginning, middle, and end.” And I really liked that process, and I think partly it’s because, though I wouldn’t want to live without writing poetry, I find writing poetry very stressful. Unless you’re writing a book-length poem or something like that—which I never do—you’re always starting something new, and that’s when I feel the most pressure. I’ll feel like, you know, I don’t have the ability to pull off what I wanted to write or do it justice. And so, when I write poetry—this sounds pretentiously artistic, I do understand that—I really feel like I need to have a lot of time to myself, and I have to be feeling like I have energy.

But with a novel, as you know, you cannot spend three years in a high state of inspiration and isolation. I can’t anyway. And a lot of poets write essays and criticism and reviews, and I don’t have the voice for that, or I don’t feel that I do. So, having a novel to work on has been really good throughout my life—teaching, being a mom, and that stuff—because the world doesn’t need me to wallpaper it with poems. I can’t write a poem every day. But I can write two pages that make me think to myself, “I can revise this later.” I like having an ongoing project, although in some ways a long story or especially a novel is more difficult because you have all these moving parts and you can—as I have done—spend several years working on something only to realize: “Oh, this won’t work. Oops.” [laughs] And with a poem, if that happens, you just throw it away and start a new one, but still, I like the process of it. I just like having something that I can return to every day.

Writing poetry and writing fiction are so different for me that they really don’t have that much in common. I just love the different processes. Like, with a poem, if I don’t initially get to the kernel of something that I feel is worth working on, I am not going back to it. But if you took that approach to fiction, you’d end up with a one-page novel [laughs].

KB: Even though, as you said, there’s not much similarity between poetry and fiction for you, I was wondering if you could speak to how your poetry has influenced your fiction. Were there any lessons you learned as a poet that have been helpful for you as a writer of fiction?

LK: When I think about what drew me to writing poetry and reading poetry in the first place, what I like the most in fiction is probably influenced by that, which is that I really like figurative language. I like atmosphere. I like sensory detail and weather. That being said, I did learn from the first failed novel—which isn’t even under my bed anymore; it’s long since been erased on a lost word processor—that you can’t just have a character who’s experiencing the changing colors of the sky for two-hundred pages [laughs]. I would read it, but nobody else is going to. So, there was a lot I had to learn about plot, character development, subplot, and those kinds of things. But really, the reason I bothered to do that and I bring that to fiction is because I just like detail, description, and metaphors. But fiction hasn’t influenced my poetry in that way. It’s just a different skill set, and the only way I ever studied it was by reading fiction.

KB: When I was reading your latest novel, Mind of Winter, I could really feel that descriptiveness. It’s just packed full of figurative language and atmosphere. One of the aspects I love about that book—and I think this ties back to the atmosphere—is how it navigates this middle ground between family drama, psychological thriller, and supernatural horror and leaves open all these different possibilities for what could be driving the plot. As you were writing, how did you go about navigating that to keep all those possibilities open?

LK: Well, honestly, when I finish something, I don’t always really remember how I wrote it—even when I wrote it or why I wrote it. But I would say, I just had an idea. It’s never happened to me before and has not happened since, but I just knew everything about it from the beginning. Because usually, when I write—for better or worse—I just start out with a character, and then it’s like reading a novel: Where’s this going to go? What’s going to happen next? And I depend a little bit more on my subconscious to guide me, but my subconscious is not always available to help structure things [laughs]. But with that one, I didn’t even need an outline because I knew it was going to center on a mother and daughter, I knew it was going to take place on Christmas Day, and I knew it was going to all take place on that one day. Plus, there were not as many moving parts to that one, due to the limited number of characters and because much of what took place was in the past. So, I would not say it was effortless, but I just knew where it was going, and then I got a beginning, middle, and end, and I went back and filled it in as best I could. But that’s not happened to me before or since.

KB: That’s incredible because the unspooling of information in that novel, and the way it’s done drip by drip, is riveting to read, and to hear that occurred more or less naturally is impressive. You mentioned that the whole novel takes place within one day—and within one house as well—even though some of the events are thirteen years in the making for the characters. What was the process of writing a story within those constraints like? Did you find that difficult? Or, similarly to what you mentioned before, was it easy to follow that idea once it came into your head?

LK: Well, it was actually easy, for me. I can’t speak to the reading experience, but, for me, having those constraints really made it possible. It was an excuse for me to describe a pair of boots for a long time [laughs]. You know, it’d be kind of cheesy for me to write another novel right now that also takes place in one day in one house, but I wish I could because having that limit just opened the possibility for me to linger on things instead of focusing on action. Because my weakness, I would say, is action. Right now, in the novel I’m trying to revise, I’m just stuck because my character has to back out of the driveway, and I just can’t do it [laughs]. Like, she’s got to get out into the street in order to drive to the end of the block in order to drive to the swimming pool, and I can’t get her out of the driveway because I can’t describe that in a way I find interesting. I try hard to not think way ahead to what’s happening next and instead just stay in a moment. And that’s easier to do if you’re stuck in a house and it’s a snowstorm on Christmas Day. You can just look out the window [laughs].

KB: I often thought those were some of the most stirring moments in Mind of Winter, when it’s the protagonist alone in her thoughts amid all the novel’s fascinating developments—because there is plot and action in that novel. You mentioned it’s being adapted into a TV miniseries. Can you tell us when and where it will be released?

LK: Well, it’s being made in France. And I think it’s this year. I don’t know that much about it because I’m not working on it myself or anything. Every once in a while, I’ll Google myself, and it looks like it’s coming out in 2022. I’ve seen some stills from it. I hope it will have subtitles [laughs].

KB: You mentioned that you’re working on another novel right now. Can you briefly describe what that’s about?

LK: So far, the working title is The Lifeguard. It opens with a scene of a boy drowning in the pool in the summer. Then it follows the ramifications of that event for the numerous people at the heart of it. There is also a mystery as to his drowning and, well, if I told you the rest, that would give away the ending [laughs]. But it’s about guilt and regret and small-town Michigan life in the ’60s.

KB: That sounds so interesting. So, those are all my questions about your writing, but since you’re our fiction judge for phoebe’s spring contest issue, I also want to ask what draws you as a reader of fiction. When you pick up a story for the first time, what are you looking for, or what tends to pull you into it?

LK: Well, the same thing probably as everyone else. I like strong writing at the sentence level and sensory description, but what keeps me turning a page is the question: What’s going to happen next? A sense of ominousness or potential for anything to happen is what keeps me reading. I think we’re all attracted to conflict and finding out how it’s going to be resolved, but, for me, that doesn’t have to be, “Oh, there’s a dead body in the house today. Who killed the butler?” [laughs] It could just be tension in a domestic situation, but it can be broader than that as well. I’m also really interested in inner thoughts and the psychology of characters and, beyond that, being in an interesting place and time and setting, and wondering what could spin out from that possibility. In that way, I like a lot of different kinds of fiction. If the writing draws me in long enough, I am just as happy with a surprise at the end as I am with a hook at the beginning.

Stories are a journey, and I like to take that trip and feel like I don’t know where the writer’s going, but they do, and that anything could happen.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.

Laura Kasischke

has published nine novels, a book of short fiction, and 12 collections of poetry—most recently, Lightning Falls in Love (Copper Canyon, 2021). She has received the National Book Award for Poetry, a Guggenheim Fellowship, two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and was long-listed for the National Book Award. Three of her novels have been made into feature-length films, and her most recent novel (Mind of Winter) is being produced as a television mini-series. She teaches at the University of Michigan, where she is the Theodore Roethke Distinguished University Professor of English. 

Kevin Binder

is phoebe’s fiction editor and a third-year fiction candidate in George Mason University’s creative writing MFA program. He typically writes satire and dystopian works, but his mind’s also been known to jump to places far beyond those genres. His work is published in McSweeney’s, Liquid Imagination, Blue Lake Review, Defenestration, and Slackjaw. When he’s not writing, Kevin is usually guilt-tripping himself for browsing social media instead of writing.

Comments are closed.