I want to thank Rosalie Morales Kearns for answering my questions. Kearns is the started a small feminist press called Shade Mountain Press. Recently, I’ve been featuring a few of her writers, but I wanted to see what Kearns had to say as a writer herself, rather than publisher! You can follow Kearns on Twitter. Shade Mountain Press can be found on Facebook and Twitter.
GRAB THE LAPELS: What would you like readers to know about your collection, Virgins and Tricksters?
ROSALIE MORALES KEARNS: I would say that a lot of the stories are very joyful, though not, I hope, in a naïve or simplistic way. There’s an underlying theme of human connection, bonds that form between people who may seem to have little in common.
Using the magic realist mode in some of the stories allowed me to play around with techniques I might not otherwise have tried. In “Devil Take the Hindmost” I tried to capture a character’s sensation that time is fluid, that different moments are occurring at the same time. Another story, “Taínos at Large,” is narrated by a chorus, the ancestral spirits of the main character, and of course those spirits are outside time also, though they’re observing their descendant who exists in ordinary time. I’m interested in conveying altered states and ecstatic experiences — which are nonlinear — in a narrative form, which has to be linear in the sense that it consists of one sentence after another.
I had fun with the settings of the stories, also. One takes place on a fictional Caribbean island. In another story there’s a conference room where all the gods and goddesses are having a meeting to complain about Yahweh.
There’s also a story cycle called “The Wives,” consisting of “The Pirate’s Wife,” “The Revolutionary’s Wife,” “The Priest’s Wife,” and finally “God’s Wife.” The main characters, the wives, are seekers; in the stories I’ve tried to capture them in the midst of their seeking.
GTL: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
RMK: For me, writing and reading were connected. Love and stories were intertwined. When I was little, my dad would read to us kids every evening. There’s a photo of me at age three or so, sitting on the sofa with my teddy bear on my lap, reading to him from a book of fairy tales (in the photo, you can clearly see that the book is upside-down). The message I’d internalized was that a loved one told you stories, and then you told stories to another loved one.
The first short story I can recall writing was at age seven. All I remember is that it was funny, and involved talking pigs. I stood in front of my second-grade class and read it out loud, and basked in my classmates’ applause. We writers hardly ever get that kind of instant gratification.
GTL: How have you developed creatively since then?
RMK: I wrote a lot during grade school. In fifth grade I wrote a radio play, which the principal allowed us to perform on the public address system. It was a mystery story, in which a student is found dead and the prime suspects are our teachers. In eighth grade in our U.S. history class, my friends and I were upset about the fate of the abolitionist John Brown, so we wrote a play in which he’s rescued from the gallows. My friend Toni, playing Catwoman (a superhero in our eyes), crouched on the top of a wardrobe and then leapt down onto a desk where Brown was about to be hanged. Luckily she was agile enough to pull it off, otherwise she, John Brown, and I (the executioner) would have crashed to the floor. Our teacher kept grumbling, “That’s NOT how it happened.”
I didn’t write much during high school, and not at all in college. It wasn’t till my mid-twenties that I started writing again, though I had very little time and energy for it. Plus I was sapped by self-doubt. I kept telling myself I didn’t know what I was doing: Who are you to write a novel? What do you know about it?
Even now, every so often, I have to remind myself that I know how to tell a story. We humans have a storytelling instinct. We need to learn how to stop second-guessing ourselves.
I’ve also learned to appreciate the pre-writing phase, when I’m just getting inklings of the story, when I dream characters, dream scenes, while washing dishes or listening to music or staring into space. That’s how I get to know the characters, discover new things about them. I can’t just consciously decide on a character’s traits; I have to intuit them gradually over time.
GTL: Does your writing include any research? If so, why/why not, and can you talk about why you made that choice.
RMK: In a way, the research comes first. The more I read about a topic for my own personal interest, the more it finds its way into my fiction. Then, as I’m sketching out notes or delving into the first draft, I do more targeted research to find specific facts that I realize the story needs.
I have a novel I’m seeking a publisher for right now, whose main character is a female Roman Catholic priest. I don’t know that I would have even thought of the subject if I hadn’t already done a lot of reading about feminist history, feminist spirituality, theology, Christian mysticism, the history of Christianity, etc. I’ve always been fascinated by religion, and I attended Catholic schools from kindergarten through college. But I still did a lot more research, especially for details: the daily missal, the catechism, the four-volume Liturgy of the Hours.
The novel I’m drafting now takes place against the backdrop of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. I would never have started the novel if I didn’t already have some familiarity with Russian culture, language, and history, but I’ve needed to do a whole lot more reading. What’s fun is that I would think up situations or scenes and then wonder, But did this really happen? And then I would read a memoir or a history and find out, yes, the cavalry was still relevant during the civil war; yes, the secret police were infiltrating the Russian Orthodox Church, etc.
GTL: What is your writing process like? Which do you favor, starting or revising?
RMK: I like both. Doing the first draft, when I’m dreaming the scenes for the first time, emotions are really raw, and if bad things are happening to the characters, I’m right there with them. An example is the Russia novel I mentioned above. The basic plot is: good people suffer a lot, then die young in horrible circumstances. A couple of years ago I used the NaNoWriMo as a motivation to make some progress on a VERY rough first draft. Each evening I would work on more scenes, with my cat Puff curled up next to me, and every so often I would reach out and bury my hand in her long, silky fur, to remind myself that there’s still goodness in this world.
The revision process creates a different sort of urgency. You have some distance from that first draft, so it’s a chance to pay more attention to craft in a calmer state of mind. But at the same time I worry that I won’t do justice to what I’m imagining, that I might not be able to make the words do what I want them to.
GTL: Are you reading anything right now?
RMK: I’ve just finished Helen Oyeyemi’s novel Mr. Fox and now want to read everything she’s ever written. And I’ve spent the past year or so reading all kinds of books about Russian history and culture. One of my favorites is a gorgeously illustrated book titled Baba Yaga: The Wild Witch of the East in Russian Fairy Tales, by Sibelan Forrester, including fairy tales and very interesting essays.
I’m also doing a lot of reading in my capacity as founder of a small feminist publishing house, Shade Mountain Press. We’re in the midst of a submissions call, for novel manuscripts by African-American women (deadline is September 1; details are here).