Katrina Kittle is a little bit of a legend, at least around these parts. I can’t go a day without running into someone who went to school with her, has taken a class from her, or has worked with her in some capacity. Teacher, mentor, actor, gardener, runner, and more, she is the author of Traveling Light, Two Truths and a Lie, The Kindness of Strangers, The Blessings of the Animals, and Reasons to Be Happy, and as many an author will tell you, is currently working on more manuscripts. She most recently accepted a position as faculty member at the University of Dayton’s English Department, and she’ll continue to teach some of her most popular writing classes through Word’s Worth Writing Center. If you haven’t had the chance to learn from this most passionate teacher, you should figure out a way to do so. With as busy as Katrina always is, I’m flattered that she took the time to answer a few of my questions.
Christina: You are an avid gardener. Does gardening feed the writing, does writing feed the gardening, or do they both feed each other?
Katrina: They absolutely feed each other. I always joke, “I’m growing way more than flowers and veggies out there.” I feel like the garden is often where I “grow” the stories as well.
I used to worry about the time spent in the garden away from my pages. I felt guilty neglecting my novel in progress. But now I understand that the gardening actually feeds the writing in many ways. The most obvious way my garden enriches my writing is that it gives me something relatively mindless to do with my hands—which is exactly when the ideas flow. If I’m trying to figure out what happens next in the story or how to resolve a problem in a scene, I can’t just sit at the desk and expect the answers to come. The ideas come when I’m driving or running or mowing or washing dishes . . . or gardening. I never listen to music or the news in my garden. I like my mind open and free, while my hands are engaged. Many a scene has been created in my garden. And gardening and writing require so much faith—you plant those seeds and it seems impossible that anything is going to grow, and you start those first few pages and its feels so daunting that an entire novel might unfold. But you tend to both—and attention and care is required. Later, the pruning, weeding, and deadheading are so similar to revision and editing—cutting away everything unnecessary so that the remaining can thrive and be spotlighted. And in both places—the garden and the pages—I feel like I’m in my happy place.
Christina: On your website you list 25 Random Things about Katrina. The 23rd item states, “I can remember conversations verbatim.” Has that talent helped or hurt you as a writer?
Katrina: Ha! It helps me win arguments, that’s for sure. It can be helpful as a writer, but I know not to fall into the trap of using real conversations verbatim. I will definitely use a perfect phrase or comeback I recall, but our job as writers is only to create the illusion of real speech, not actually duplicate real speech (with all its repetition, lack of direction and focus, and false starts).
Christina: In 2015, you gave a TEDx Talk entitled, “Strong at Our Broken Places: The Opportunities in our Personal Disaster.” In it, you reveal that “the worst things that happen to us can be our greatest teachers if we train ourselves to seek their lessons.” Where or from whom do you learn most of your lessons?
Katrina: I do think most everyone’s best teachers are our moments of hardship and heartache. Those moments that push us off the cliff of change and end up altering our lives, those moments can define us and act as catalysts. It’s such a cliché, but we have to fail occasionally in order to learn. I firmly believe if you can’t remember the last time you failed, you probably need to step up your game a bit. I’ve finally hit the point in my life where I recognize that if something scares me a little, I should probably do it. I force myself out of my comfort zone, where failure is a much stronger possibility. That’s where I learn, and where I believe most of us learn.
Christina: Your books often revolve around social issues. What kind of research do you perform and do you do that research before beginning the book or begin the book before doing the research?
Katrina: I try to do as much research as I can online to begin with—so that I can then approach some experts with at least a modicum of knowledge and can ask them more interesting or complicated questions. I never want to waste an expert’s time by asking them something I could easily find out with a Google search. I’ll read, I’ll watch movies, I’ll immerse myself in anything—fiction or nonfiction—set in the world of the issue. I’m searching for the cast of the issue—who are the people who would inhabit this world and story? Then, once I’ve begun drafting, I’ll try to reach out to experts to help me further. For The Kindness of Strangers, I did a ride-along with a cop, I interviewed social workers, pediatricians, child advocates, and people from Family Services. For The Blessings of the Animals, I shadowed a veterinarian for three days. Sometimes, with that kind of research, you don’t really know what you’re even looking for, but you know it when you experience it—sometimes it’s the perfect sound or smell, or an inspirational quote pinned up on someone’s crowded bulletin board, or a bit of shorthand people who work together might use. You’re looking for those specific details that give authenticity to the world you’re creating.
Christina: You’ve often said to write what you’re most passionate about. Based on your love of zombies, should we expect a zombie novel in the future from you?
Katrina: This made me laugh. That I love zombies is actually a common misconception about me. What I really love is a good post-apocalypse story and it just so happens that those stories often begin with or contain zombies. My love for a good apocalypse story started way back when I was kid with the original Planet of the Apes TV specials, and was solidified when I read Lord of the Flies in 10th grade. I’m fascinated by stories of who we are when all the trappings of civilization are taken from us. So, I am indeed playing with a pandemic novel that visits that question. I wrote a draft of it when I was a resident at the Thurber House, but it’s sat for a few years now. It’s time to return to it soon and begin revisions.
Christina: What does literary success look like to you?
Katrina: That’s a tough one. So much of the publishing industry seems set up to keep us humbled and disheartened much of the time. I prefer to keep my standards of happiness and success firmly in my own hands and not dependent on anyone else’s actions. So, for me, literary success is when I am honoring my writing time, writing consistently, and serving whatever story in is my heart and mind to the best of my ability.
Thanks to Katrina for agreeing to this interview! If you know of an author who’d like to be featured in an interview (or you are an author who would like to be featured), feel free to leave a comment or email me via my contact page.