The more my writing world expands, the more authors I find with ties to Ohio. 2021 Debut author Khristeena Lute is no exception. She grew up in Southeastern Ohio before making her way to Arizona and Kentucky, eventually landing in New York. In ways, her writing mimics those moves: she wrote academic chapters about Grace King before landing on fiction with that same historical figure in it. That book? Her debut novel, Finding Grace and Grit, which launched earlier this month. Author Miki Pfeffer says of the story: “Khristeena Lute creates a compelling tale about two southern women separated in time by more than a century. . . . Lute captures an essence of the too-little-known writer and pioneering historian.” Being both a writer and a professor, Khristeena doesn’t have much spare time, so I’m thankful she took a few moments to answer my questions.
Christina: Finding Grace and Grit is your first novel, but you’re no stranger to writing, having written personal essays and academic works. What drew you to novel writing?
Khristeena: I thought that after I completed my doctorate that I would feel . . . whole, somehow. But I didn’t. Right out of grad school, I landed a great, tenure-track position at a small college in a lovely area of New York. My family was happy and healthy—but I still felt untethered. Like there was something I was supposed to be doing, but I wasn’t. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an artist or a writer, but these weren’t deemed real jobs by my family, so eventually, I left that behind and pursued a career in education—and it’s one that I love, but I still felt off, somehow. Having secured stability for the family through my job as a professor, I began reflecting over what I needed to do for myself. While I was at a literary conference, I was sight-seeing alone when it dawned on me: it was time to write fiction—and as soon as I started, that anxious push-push-push finally eased. I could breathe again.
Christina: Your novel centers around two characters, one of whom is Grace King, an American author from Louisiana. What about Grace King in particular inspired you to write a novel with her in it?
Khristeena: Grace King is a little-known author for today’s readers, and she’s not perfect. She isn’t a role model or someone to put on a pedestal. But—she lived a very interesting and colorful life and accomplished a great deal in both fields of literature and history during a tumultuous time in American history—Reconstruction and the early 20th century. I was inspired by her drive to survive and create the life she wanted for herself when she realized that no one else would be able to do it for her.
Christina: One of your many degrees is a doctorate in English specializing in American women writers from the Civil War to present. Was it difficult to decide on a dissertation topic? How did you choose that time frame? What do you hope people learn from your research?
Khristeena: Selecting a diss topic is an interesting process. You have to choose something that is original, relevant, and enjoyable—you do have to write on that same topic for several years, so it’s important to select something you have a deep interest in. For me, that interest kicked off with a deep love for the city of New Orleans. Over time and research, I began investigating women writers connected to the city, which meant mostly post-Civil War, as very few women were writers before then. My research has focused on bringing lesser-known women writers back into the academic conversation. For so many, their work was marginalized as superfluous to larger movements in literary history—as though their writing was a cute hobby—when in actuality, their work was front and center for many readers in their time periods—so why aren’t we studying more of these writers? They were popular in their own times—and then pushed aside. It’s time to bring them back into the conversation.
Christina: You used to teach junior high literature. What did you learn from students of that age? Do any of those lessons come to play in your writing?
Khristeena: I think one thing most teachers learn pretty quickly is if something doesn’t work, toss it and start over. Trying new things and understanding that not everything will work for everyone every time is a pretty big life lesson. I also learned to laugh at myself—a lot—it was the easiest way to save face and embrace humility. Stumble over your words in front of 30 people? Oops. Admit it and move on. Completely forget your lesson for a minute? Aw, geez, sorry, folks, let me check my plans. It taught all of us to remember that we’re human, and it’s something I still embrace in my classroom, even though I teach college students now.
Christina: According to your website, you like to run, hike, and camp. What does being in the outdoors do for you? If you could travel to only one place to run, hike, or camp, where would it be?
Khristeena: I currently live in Saratoga Springs, New York, which is just below the amazing Adirondack Mountains. We’ve lived here since 2016, and I’m still stunned by the natural beauty around me everyday: trees taller than I ever realized they could be, mountains upon mountains in the distance, clear rivers and streams—it’s amazing. And for someone with a lot of anxiety, like me, being outdoors allows me to breathe—which sounds so ridiculously simple, but it’s true.
Christina: The tattoo you got in March to celebrate your novel is beautiful. How many tattoos do you have, and does each one have a special meaning? How do you decide what sort of tattoo you’d like to get?
Khristeena: I love my tattoos. I choose them for specific reasons, but I tend to choose a similar style and color scheme, so they blend well together. I have three, shaded black and white birch leaves scattered over my right shoulder. Birch leaves symbolize the concept of a quest, and there are three: one for me, one for my partner, and one for the two of us together. The most recent tattoo is a black and white shaded magnolia in the center of my upper back. I grew up on the edges of Appalachia in southeastern Ohio—right on the River—and then spent ten years living in Tennessee; for most of my life, I have lived in the South. When we moved north, it was for me to take a job as a professor in a community college, which is a job that I love—but I do get a bit nostalgic and homesick. I want to remember that wherever I go, a part of the South will always be with me.
Thanks to Khristeena 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.