Interview: Daphne Kalotay
Interview by: Shilpi Suneja
Daphne Kalotay, author of two novels and a short story collection, all of which have garnered critical praise, has been living and writing in Boston since 1993, ever since she moved here to get her MFA from Boston University. Her debut collection, Calamity and Other Stories, was shortlisted for the 2005 Story Award, while her latest novel, Sight Reading, won the 2014 New England Society Book Award. Kalotay has received fellowships from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, the Bogliasco Foundation, and Yaddo. In Fall 2014 Kalotay will join the Creative Writing Department at UMass Boston as their new Writer-in-Residence. In this interview, Kalotay speaks with graduate student Shilpi Suneja about the writing life, her sources of inspiration, the challenges she faced as a writer, and the meaning of success.
SS: Where did you grow up?
DK: I grew up in suburban New Jersey. It was a great place to grow up. But my whole family lives in New York City now. Still, most people you meet at some point confess that they once lived in New Jersey.
SS: Does it still feel like home to you? Or is it Boston that feels like home now?
DK: I’ve been in Boston for so long! And though I don’t feel like I’m from here, I have such affection for it. When I first moved here, I felt there’s something about it that feels old-fashioned and quaint. Now I realize, I like it. The people here are reserved—they’re not cold, they’re reserved—and I started to appreciate that.
SS: You write so beautifully about Boston. Even when you set a piece in Russia, the other half of it is set in Boston. Will you continue to write about Boston?
DK: I have to say, I have realized that it is not chic to write about Boston. Most literary agents and editors live and work in New York, and people like to read about places they know. But that’s what’s nice about writing about Boston. I’ll give a reading in a different city and people will come and say, “I went to school in Boston, so I wanted to read your book.” Even with the book I’m writing now, it starts in New York but ends in Massachusetts.
SS: Speaking about cities and places, do you use setting as inspiration?
DK: Not usually. For Russian Winter, the seed for the story was this idea of the communist world. It wasn’t specific to Russia; I was basing it on my family in Hungary. It was only when I was deciding where to set the story that I picked Moscow, for many reasons. Even with the Boston sections, it didn’t feel like a conscious choice. I felt, I live here, I can describe this place. But my new book began with the idea that I wanted to write about New York City before the economic boom, because I lived there briefly in the early 90s, and by the late 90s it had changed so much. So that’s where I began, but then the story ended up in very different places.
SS: So, where does the seed for inspiration come from? Is it people? People in certain situations?
DK: With the stories, it probably begins with a character. Sometimes I can’t even remember what got me started. But recently, at a reading, I realized the story I was reading came from an anecdote a friend’s father had told us, about when he was a boy. It had stayed with me, and the story was, in part, my trying to imagine how it came about. Stories are like that. They can hinge on something small. But with the novels it can be something much larger and much harder to locate, like a mood. Then you have to nail down the plot.
SS: Speaking of stories, say, if we pick the title story of your collection, “Calamity” the situation itself is so unusual, it is perfect for the short-story form.
DK: That’s a great example. I remember writing that story. I had two different people I knew, one was my mother and one was a friend from New Jersey, who had been on planes in emergency landings. I thought, that’s a great setup for a story. The space on an airplane is physically small: it’s two people next to each other, uncomfortably close. I really liked the idea of there being a confession, because, what do you do when you think you’re going to die? That’s what I wanted: two people telling secrets to each other. So, yes, that’s a great example of a story that began with a situation.
SS: Are you still writing stories?
DK: That’s a great question, because I just finished writing my first story since the collection came out, almost ten years ago. I had the idea for this story in 2008 when I was writing Russian Winter. I kept thinking about it and knew it was complicated. After Russian Winter came out, I tried, couldn’t do it, and then, every year, at least once, I opened the file on my computer. But I just couldn’t move forward; I felt like I'd forgotten how to write a story. And it was just this fall that I felt I finally had the fortitude to do it. I think it was partly to do with being totally finished, getting Sight Reading out, being done with all my promotional events. I finally had the mental space. I was so proud of myself when I finished it [laughs]. I now realize it was much more complicated than the stories in Calamity. All the stories in that book are eighteen pages or so, compact. And this story goes back and forth in time. I knew it wasn’t a novel, but it felt much more complicated than a single-setting story.
SS: It is interesting that you called your earlier stories compact. They feel expansive in that all the characters feel so well-imagined. For example, the older woman in “Calamity” puts on makeup right before she is going to die. In what they say, their gestures, the reader gets the sense that the writer has really inhabited these characters.
DK: That’s really important to me. I feel, that’s what we are trying to tell, even if we have an amazing plot. The books that get to me are the ones that stay true to human nature. The ones I put down are the ones whose characters I don’t believe exist, which sounds funny because they are fictional characters. But, for example, I remember reading Anna Karenina, the scene where Kitty gets ready to go to the ball. She’s putting on her shoes, and Tolstoy notes that for once her shoes don’t pinch her toes, they feel comfortable. And I remember thinking, if you told me Tolstoy was an eighteen-year-old-girl, I would believe it, because he embodied this character physically as well as mentally. I loved that detail.
SS: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that Tolstoy is your favorite novelist. Was it Tolstoy that made you want to become a writer? How did you start writing? Why did you stick with it?
DK: I was an undergrad at Vassar, studying Psychology. I had just finished with all my classes related to my major, and I could finally take something else, so I took Intro to Creative Writing. I remember going home with the first assignment, working really hard on it, and thinking, if the teacher doesn’t praise this, I will be crushed. And she did, and I thought, I was right, I am good at this. And that just made me want to keep writing. After that I went to graduate school at BU, and from then on I really knew I wanted to write.
SS: Was there a time you felt, why did I do this?
DK: The time I felt really low was after I completed all the stories for Calamity and had a book. I’d had many stories published, had many rejections — the rejections didn’t phase me. I had just finished the book and was looking for an agent, but the minute agents heard it was a book of stories, they wouldn’t even look at the manuscript. This process went on for a year, but it felt endless. You see, the problem with writing is, there’s no intermediary step. You either don’t have your story published or it’s been accepted. Now, it’s different with the Internet, but at that time we didn’t have places to put them up on the Web. So your work didn’t exist unless it was in a book or a magazine. Things were bleak until that happened, and it was one of those things that changed overnight. Literally, I got a call from an agent saying, “I’m going to sell your book.” And from there it was fine.
SS: So, after the stories, switching to the novel, what was that like?
DK: That was really hard, too. I was used to writing tightly knit pages and paragraphs, where every sentence is its own weighted bit of information. I was so used to packing sentences with information. But in a novel, you can spread that out. You need to spread it out. You need to be relaxed, so that you can develop the tide of the novel, going in and out. It took me a while to find that. And once I found it, I was so excited to have that more relaxed feeling, to not be so tightly knit. It was amazing even to break up sentences, or to let something be revealed in action that normally I would just try to tell the reader in a sentence.
SS: How long did it take you learn to switch to the novel form?
DK: Probably 3 years, even to just get that rhythm going. Those early drafts were so different from the later ones. And part of the problem was, I was making that novel out of a story I wrote. So I was working from the story form. If I’d just had an idea for a novel, I could have made a mental shift, but it took a long time to unknit sentences.
SS: Did you also have to take a different approach with the characters in the novel? Were they revealed very differently in the novel than in the short story?
DK: I think they can be the same. But in stories you can take a very distant approach to your characters. You can have a narrator telling you about a character from a distance. To do that for a novel… you’d better do it very well, because how can you get readers to care about that character? Good novels, the ones that people relate to or connect with, are very interior. And that’s the strength of a novel, something no other art form can do. That’s why so many great novels can’t be translated to the screen.
SS: Let’s talk about the writers you love to read.
DK: I have for a long time admired British women writers. We hear so much about great contemporary British male writers— Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro. But there are so many contemporary British women writers—Jane Gardam, Anita Brookner, Isabel Colegate, and even the ones who’ve passed away, like Muriel Spark, Penelope Fitzgerald. These writers don’t always get the same accolades as Martin Amis, and they should.
SS: What do you like about their writing?
DK: I don’t know what it is exactly, but I notice that the verbs that these writers use are much more precise and stronger than the ones used by American writers. The language they use to describe action is often surprising, whereas the language of action in American sentences can be so casual, with verbs like “get,” “go,” “do”—which make the sentences very boring.
SS: You’re also a known scholar of Mavis Gallant.
DK: Yes! She died recently. The one good thing, perhaps, was that she finally got some attention. She was a really under-appreciated writer.
SS: Why do you think Mavis Gallant was under-appreciated?
DK: I think it’s because her writing was historically complex. She wrote these dense stories that aren’t told in that close, confessional voice that Alice Munro is so good at. Also, short stories are seen as something more intimate, that’s what they can do so well, but Gallant’s stories are long and don’t always have that intimacy, so that’s part of the reason why people don’t always connect with them. But she’s so amazing and brilliant. The day she died, I immediately pulled out her Collected Stories and started reading it.
SS: Her life story itself is amazing. Growing up without a mom and the endless years of struggle.
DK: Yes, she made her way and continued to make her way. That’s something we don’t appreciate as much any more, because a single woman supporting herself isn’t so rare. But, she lived off her writing. She was determined from a young age to just be a writer. And she did it.
SS: We don’t celebrate that enough, the achievement of women writers.
DK: The sexism in the book industry is so subtle that you don’t always recognize it. I recently was reading a review of a book by a woman writer, and the reviewer—a man—called it “lovely.” It’s lovely! [laughs]. I feel to be a woman who is respected intellectually, you have to be one of the boys. That could mean you’re writing books about male protagonists. The women who do may not be doing so on purpose, but that’s part of the reason why men are able to appreciate their writing. It’s sad—the minute you have a woman protagonist—
SS: It’s “lovely!”
DK: Exactly! When I was younger these things didn’t bother me. I thought, who cares, these dead white male writers are great! But at some point I had that feeling that these literary greats don’t necessarily represent me.
SS: So how long did it take you to find your voice? When you were first starting out, which writers did you imitate?
DK: When I was first starting out, I think I tried to imitate Nabokov, and great stylists like him, just for fun. But for my stories, I had Chekhov and Mavis Gallant in mind. But finding your voice takes ten years, no matter what the medium. I’ve decided this is the rule. I was writing stories at BU in 1993, and I finished Calamity in 2003. I was reading the Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, and when she and Robert Mapplethorpe started out in New York, when they were nineteen or so, she was trying to be a poet and he was trying to make jewelry. And what happened ten years later? She became a rock star, and he became a photographer. They each had to find the right medium!
SS: So, you finished the BU MFA in 1994, and it’s 2014 now. In the past 20 years, how do you think your career has shaped up, and where is it headed?
DK: I still worry all the time. I worry about finding a balance, finding the time to work seriously on my writing and get it to the point where I’d like it to be. Even with the new book I’m writing, I finally think I have the right voice for it, but who knows? I know what I want to do, I have ideas for novels, and I have a list of stories. I have faith that I will find a way to tell the stories. But often, I don’t even know how I’m going to…it seems like such a big project sometimes, especially with the novels. So I feel like I just need time, really, to find my way in. I’m really slow.
SS: You’re not slow! You have 3 books out!
DK: You know what it is, when I know what I’m doing, I can write really fast. But it can take me literally years to know what to do. And when I don’t know what to do, it doesn’t matter how fast I write, because it’s the wrong thing.
SS: And it seems like you’re always teaching. Do you really enjoy teaching?
DK: Yes! I love workshops and teaching literature. I’m always learning from my students, and I really love sharing work with students that they haven’t read before. So that’s why I continue to teach. And it’s also a reminder that we all struggle, we always struggle.
SS: Speaking of struggle, there was something you once said in a class I took with you, about being your own success, of counting all the small successes.
DK: Yes, exactly. Being proud that you finished a story. I remember when Russian Winter was going to come out, there were so many expectations. I said to my mother, I’m so worried, what if it isn’t a success? And she said, “Daphne, it’s already a success.” And I knew exactly what she meant. And it was true.
SS: The writing process itself is the reward.
DK: That’s so true. It’s the intangible things, such as what a reader says about your work. That’s what stays with you more than anything. But it is so important to celebrate when your first story comes out, or when you finish a story. Because in other fields people get credit for steps along the way. They get promotions, they get raises. We aren’t given those things. So we have to celebrate all these other things. We have to celebrate all the little moments.