June 8, 2011 by The Citron Review
At The Citron Review, we take a certain level in pride in publishing those who came through the same MFA program we did. That’s one reason I was excited to see Kat Kambes’ name pop up in our inbox. We know what kind of education they’ve received, and we know the work ethic that was likely instilled in them. We know they share the same unadulterated commitment to tight, hard-hitting writing. And while not every Antioch Alum that submits is published, those that are demonstrate why Antioch’s MFA in Creative Writing program is one of the top in the nation. I took the time to ask Kat a little about her eclectic background, her philosophies on short fiction, and her plans for the future. Here’s the interview that followed:
AG) In addition to writing fiction, you write plays as well. What do you think fiction writers can learn from those who write for the stage?
KK) There’s a lot from the stage that I draw upon. Theater taught me how to really observe human behavior. Even though playwriting is ultimately a collaborative process, you still have to think in details. The more details you discover, the more choices you have. For instance, if your action takes place in a room that’s made of rough cut wood that says something about the character who lives in it. Or if it’s a sleek ultra-modern room, with smooth surfaces, steel and glass, that says something totally different. If there is a collection of prescription bottles on the kitchen counter that says something. What kind of person surrounds themselves in steel and glass and what kind of person surrounds themselves in rough wood? You have to get into their skin to get a real sense of these things. So you develop an awareness of details and what it says about the character. A character that sits around twirling the ends of her hair in her hands says something about what’s going on with that character, or a character that laughs nervously intermittently…so all these tiny manifestations really tell us a lot about the character we are exploring. Or if someone moves a certain way – say in short quick spurts like a squirrel, that tells you something about how their energy works. These things actually can tell us more about what’s going on then the dialogue, which often is a mask to cover up what’s really going on with people. These details are all so telling. This definitely carries over to fiction, or any other form of writing.
Just as an aside, what is truly amazing about theater is that it often can expose a much deeper level of the human condition than what the written words reveal. A play is a living thing, and meant to have breath in it. Actors bring the words to life in ways that can truly touch upon a sense of truth if they are skilled enough.
Ultimately though, it all comes down to art and I truly believe that ALL forms of art are what keeps the civil in our civilization. Without it, we would have killed ourselves off long ago. Theater taught me to accept my humanity, and to love the fallibility that is in each one of us, and for that I am forever grateful. That, of course, can carry over to any and all of our writing.
AG) You write poetry as well. Micro fiction, especially, has often been likened to prose-poetry. What elements of poetry do you feel translate well to short fiction?
KK) To me poetry is a process of distilling emotion. It can be a very pure thing. Sometimes a poem is the only way you can say it. But in terms of mechanics, I think all poetic tools translate over to all other forms of writing. The beautiful language of Ondaatje, for instance. He has such a painterly way of drawing a scene, it’s quite exquisite. Or the use of metaphor or alliteration, or any of the poetic devices. Look at O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” Who would’ve thought that muddied shoes and extra socks could be poetic? But the way O’Brien uses them – they are. In Tennessee Williams “The Night of the Iguana” he depicts an aged poet whose traveling with his niece who has been caring for him. He would seem to be a minor character, but throughout the play, he’s writing this poem. Williams is brilliant in juxtaposing the poem’s development to the action of the play. The poem actually creates a good portion of the tension being developed throughout the piece. Really some stunning writing. I’m happy though if I can find the “like” or “as” that is unique enough to bring some fresh air into the image, or develop a rhythm that serves the story. These kinds of things delight me in indescribable ways. I really admire those writers who can do that well.
AG) How much experience do you have writing short fiction?
KK) I’m a late bloomer, and left school early on to pursue theater in New York. When I finally went back to complete my degree, I took some fiction writing classes. I absolutely fell in love. I mean, you could get inside of people’s head! I found this so liberating.
AG) Do you find it presents any unique challenges?
KK) “Short” fiction for me is a challenge because I want to explore everything in such depth. Short fiction relates to poetry in the sense that you have to distill it down and find just the most telling details or images. I’ve really had to learn to focus on one particular element and not get so carried away.
AG) Why do you feel The Garden works as a flash-fiction better than it would as a twenty-page short story or even a novel?
KK) The Garden came out of a prompt. I have a friend who was developing a yoga/writing course and this initially, in its rough form, came out of that. She had a tomato as a prompt and there was limited time for development (hence the short part). Although I do think this character has shown up in several other stories, so who knows what might eventuate?
AG) You’re working on a collection of shorts. How short are they?
KK) They are anything from 60 to 1,000 words. I initially started exploring this form because my stories tend to be long. Really long. Too long. Most literary magazines like their short stories under 3,000 words. Mine were hitting 4-5, even 7,500 words. I thought that by focusing on shorts and short shorts, I might be able to pull the reins in on myself a little better when I went to write regular stories.
AG) Can you share a little more about the book with us?
KK) The Shadows of Things is a collection of short stories that I started when I was working on my MFA. What interests me, what I wanted to look at, is the way we perceive and the way we are perceived and the kind of illusions we strive to create to maintain those perceptions. It’s those things behind the obvious, the shadowy things, that I wanted to look at.
AG) In piecing together a collection of short works, what process do you go through to select which stories will be included?
KK) For The Shadow of Things, I’m still selecting. My criteria has been kind of broad, so this is where I’m at now, developing a tighter lens into the material and sorting out what doesn’t really fit. Illusions come in many different forms and I’ve had some difficulty wrangling myself in. I’ve started regrouping into various combinations, to see how that unfolds as well. Obviously, this is a process I’m still developing, much as I am my writing.