Kathryn Craft is a dynamo.
She has a personality that can fill a room, as bubbly as swimming pool filled with Mentos and Diet Coke. She’s also a driven writer with a unique and passionate voice, an inspired editor who can open almost any story’s engine and make it hum like a brand new Rolls, and a survivor who has experienced devastating tragedy and come back even stronger.
Finally, Kathryn is the Siren that drew me to the Philadelphia Writers Conference board, and I alternate between cursing her and blessing her every 3rd or 4th day.
Kathryn’s first novel: “The Art of Falling” will be released this January and has already garnered a ton of acclaim. I asked her to talk a little about her novel, her life as an editor, and being an all around awesome lady.
The “Art of Falling” seems to be a very personal novel. How did your career, as a dancer and dance critic help drive this story?
This novel was a journal of healing for me after my first husband’s suicide. I knew that in order to forgive him I had to somehow empathize with his despair—but as a lifelong optimist, that was difficult. Since at the time I’d already been a dance critic for seventeen years, I knew that I learn best while writing. I felt that wouldn’t happen writing about a male alcoholic—I needed to write about a woman I might be able to relate to. So, knowing the dance world, I created a dancer who’d been waging a long-standing war against her own body, because if you think about it, a war against self can have no victor. I took away her support systems: family, mentor, fellow dancers, dream career, and her lover, the only choreographer who ever recognized her talent. That started to feel pretty dark—would that do it? My readers can decide. But when she woke up in the hospital after what should have been a deadly fourteen story fall and started to fight to regain the precious movement that had defined her life, I knew that this woman had the strength I needed to write a story with a more hopeful ending than my husband’s.
Penny is saved from her fall, not only by her ‘sturdy thighs’ and ‘mambo hips’, but by falling onto cardboard boxes full of doughnuts. Self-image is obviously a vital theme, can you expand upon that a little?
This story centers around a dancer who, for a variety of reasons, sees her body as everything it’s not instead of celebrating all it can do so well. Such body image issues are encountered all the time in dance studios, but increasingly, in other areas of endeavor as well. In order to be competitive kids are put through rigorous training at younger and younger ages, and the resulting perfectionism has caused increased eating disorders in ice skating, gymnastics, equine sports, and more. It’s not enough to have the talent and the passion—you have to have the body. But thanks to our celebrity-driven, fitness-crazed culture, every day I hear people around me wishing they could shave a little off here or beef this up or stop that from jiggling. I’m not sure what the answer is—I swing between self-acceptance and self-damnation like anybody—but I’d love to inspire more conversation about this difficult subject. My character set is orchestrated to do so, since Penny’s first friends outside the dance world are a baker (on whose doughnuts she landed) and a woman her age with a fighting spirit who’s in the end stages of cystic fibrosis.
You write with a beautiful, lyrical voice. Who are your literary inspirations?
Thanks, Jim! When I encounter a sentence whose truth is couched in the rhythm and beauty of its words, I get a chill up my spine. One of my favorite quotes is from Virginia Woolf: “Each sentence must have, at its heart, a little spark of fire, and this, whatever the risk, the novelist must pluck with his own hands from the blaze.” Authors whose writing really sparks for me include Ann Patchett, Khaled Hosseini, Margot Livesey, Barbara Kingsolver, Roland Merullo, Marisa de los Santos, Regina McBride, and Danielle Younge-Ullman.
You host a women’s writers retreat, what are some of the unique challenges facing women in the publishing world?
The biggest challenge, hands down, is lack of support. Married women with families have obligations that must come before their writing, usually including caring for the children, cooking, cleaning, laundry, caring for the family’s health needs, volunteer work, chauffeuring, oh, and let’s throw in a full-time job as well. Writers are hard-wired for creativity, and such rigid demands can drive them into depression. When I host a retreat I cook, I clean, I make the beds, and in doing so, say, “For the next few days, following your passion is your one and only job.” Some of the things retreaters have said: “I got so much done just looking out over the water. The one thing I never have at home is time to think.” “The hike we took healed my soul.” “I can’t believe I parked my car and didn’t have to move it for three days!” So men: if you want to give your writer-wife an awesome gift, give her the gift of one hour a day to herself. It could change your world.
You’ve worked for almost 7 years as a development editor, what are some of the biggest mistakes new writers make?
Taking the safe road and not pushing their story far enough outside their comfort zone. Thinking that verbal storytelling is the same as writing. Failing to follow the sage advice to put the manuscript away for a couple of months while working on something else—don’t make this mistake! When the blush of new love with your own prose wears off, it’s so much less embarrassing to encounter its warts in private. Missing the point that writing for publication presupposes a public, and therefore requires collaboration via an editorial feedback loop—self-published or not. Failing to realize their competition is not just other submitting writers, but every author, living or dead, who’s still in print. You need to know: why must your novel be added to the existing canon? Don’t settle for “because it might be good enough”—aim to knock the reader’s socks off.
Kathryn Craft is the author of The Art of Falling, book club fiction due out from Sourcebooks in January 2014. Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a career as a dance critic (Morning Call, Allentown, PA). She has served on the boards of the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group and the Philadelphia Writers Conference, is Book Club Liaison for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, hosts writing retreats for women, and speaks often about writing. She is a contributing editor at The Blood-Red Pencil blog and a monthly guest at Writers in the Storm with her series “Turning Whine into Gold.” She is a proud member of the Liars Club, a Philadelphia-based group of novelists supporting independent bookstores, literacy, and other forms of paying it forward. She lives with her husband in Bucks County, PA. Representation: Katie Shea, Donald Maass Literary Agency. Book clubs who would like to have Kathryn join their conversation about The Art of Falling can contact her through her website, kathryncraft.com.