R. M. Kinder, author of three prizewinning collections of short fiction, including the upcoming A Common Person and Other Stories (February 2021), recently spoke to us about her writing life, the creative process that went into this collection of short stories, and the writers who have influenced her work. She generously offers advice for new writers who are interested in starting a book.
When did you first get the idea to write A Common Person and Other Stories?
Since this is my third collection, many of the issues and themes are familiar—abuse of power, for example, search for identity and community. The title story, though, which draws together earlier themes and sharpens focus, was prompted by specific, still current issues: gun control, freedom of speech, freedom from persecution. In “A Common Person,” Maggie is a peace-loving, small-town, older woman who had owned and still owns guns. One spontaneous Facebook post, which she deletes, brings her under government scrutiny and disrupts her life. Her situation is a window into kinds of invasion, provocation, and hounding—on a small scale of what occurs on the big stage in this country and elsewhere. It also raises questions of the individual’s responsibility in what he or she enables. Maggie’s story guided me in reseeing other stories and arranging the collection.
These are unprecedented times in the United States and around the world. What can readers find in your book that will resonate with them during this era?
The conflicts in this collection are contemporary and common, and readers will likely identify closely with one or more, such as gun ownership, property infringement, gender identity, and especially bullying—there are so many kinds and degrees. But the resonance I hope for is with the need to choose and act, at least to make a stand. The ugly wave going around the world is a pandemic of power, hate, oppression, depression, poverty—the last in the midst of great wealth—and greed. Vengeance. Cruelty. It is so pervasive that we risk feeling powerless and defeated. But we’re all warriors in little battles. These stories reveal struggles and the need to do right—or to feel true regret when that wasn’t done. Teenagers in “Little Garden” recognize their friend’s teasing is out of bounds, is cruel, but they don’t stop it. In “Small Courtesies,” an ordinary couple’s attendance at a sci-fi conference causes extreme suspicion of the “other” (aliens) on two sides and the need for a mediator. Meanness. Elitism. These anyone can fight, by intervening or just by conceding one’s own failings and then changing. We need to choose kindness, mutual respect and support, understanding of those who are different from us, speaking up and staying in the fight.
How does this book contribute to contemporary conversations or events?
The stories offer multiple prompts for discussion. Issues are narrowed to an individual’s plight, sometimes through the community and voice, so that more than one side is evident. Abortion—a daughter’s argument for one and a mother’s argument against; bullying, sometimes disguised as teasing or loving—by spouse, schoolmates, friends, community; animal neglect distinguished from animal abuse—how does one take care of a parakeet; debilitating fear; aging; the aberrant mind. Heroism in small ways is found throughout the collection, doing what one can and admiring what is admirable. Coming to agreement on what is right.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
In the years between my last collection and this one, my attitude toward writing shifted considerably. Always I want to engage the reader, to tell a good story, but I want also to be uplifting. It came to me, via readers in different ways, that the stories in my past collections didn’t reflect the joy I see in life, the hope, the optimism, and even the humor. I love banter and teasing and good jokes. That was one insight—I needed not to lighten up but to show light. The second insight came from a reviewer who commented that I write about peasants. I hadn’t thought of my characters as a class, of their struggles as class struggles. And yet I have been increasingly aware of class as I moved into the world and out of the cocoon of my mother’s house and smalltown Missouri. With A Common Person and Other Stories, I wanted to consider what was positive about the human situation in a particular story, and to consider whose story I was telling beyond the individual’s—to recognize a larger obligation. So, at times I’m very aware of the community as community, a class, a sub-group. In “The Stuff of Ballads” a music community follows the grand passion between two people, quarreling, judging, and all the while hoping for a particular outcome. As for being uplifting, I deliberately chose a couple stories that I wouldn’t have included before. For one, I countered what my training suggested would be the most powerful ending and chose an ending more appropriate under other values. People want to be happy and they manage it. That’s realistic, too, the best part.
Who is the biggest influence on you and your work?
Since I both studied and taught literature, I’ve likely been influenced by more writers than I realize, probably by every one of them, in one way or the other. I read many writers for the pleasure of their talent, knowing that I can’t emulate them, even if I wanted to—Paul Bowles’ style, Patricia Highsmith’s tight plots. Over time, I’ve gradually moved more toward writers whose works, fiction or nonfiction, are generally uplifting, writers who create moments of understanding that stay with us, who touch the spirit someway. They don’t overly sentimentalize or overly condemn. They present the complexity of human nature, good and bad. There are so many examples, in different genres, too, but I’ll name a few. William Faulkner, my major author in studies, Willa Cather (the love of my life), Zora Neale Hurston, Raymond Carver, Annie Proulx, Erik Larson and Candice Millard (nonfiction), and, now, Adam Johnson.
What is your writing schedule like?
When life is fairly normal, I like to write early in the morning for two or three hours, and then spend the rest of the day doing what I must or please, pet care, husband tending, music, friends. If those writing hours occur, then the rest of the day feels lighter, because my main obligation and love (admittedly) has been tended to. That’s what I prefer, but if it’s not possible, I write when I can. When I was a kid, I wrote off and on all the time, ballads, poems, one-liners, so writing is an old habit, but now far more disciplined, aimed for discovery as much as production. I have no schedule once I’m caught up with a story or chapter. If the drive is there in a way I trust, then I stay with it as long as possible. I can’t recreate that surge of writing or plan it, so I try to last. The most difficult part of writing and the one I must schedule from discipline alone is submitting my work. I’ll procrastinate, get rigid over a submission letter and work a Sudoku puzzle instead.
What advice would you give a writer who wants to start a book?
My answer would be different if the writer were planning on a specific audience, or on being a commercial genre writer—in short, if he or she had a goal that required some preplanning. But, to address the writer who just wants to get started, here: Begin. If you start today, a year from now you won’t be a person who wants to write a book, you’ll be a writer working on a book. Set appointments with your writing and value the time; safeguard it. Be there, ready for whatever comes. Some days you may turn out nothing, but your mind is working. Another day, a door may open and an entire story pour out. You won’t be able to keep up with it. Have with you a method of keeping notes, and record ideas, descriptions, phrases, words, as they come to you. When you daydream, enter the book’s world, listen and look. It’s a great place to visit. Some writers have to write to the story, like feeling through fog or swimming through dark water.
Let me add that some writers have to think through an entire work and can’t set down a line until the internal structure is complete. I’m not that kind of writer, but I know they exist. If I talked through a story, I would lose the discovery of it and not write it. No one way suits everyone. Some writers turn out only a few lines a day, others pages. Some writers feel their skills aren’t up to the subject they’ve chosen. But if waiting seems appropriate because you really aren’t ready for that subject, you might choose an aspect of it. Or wait. Surely most writers know if they’re procrastinating or preparing. Most important in any case—value your writing, give it time, choose your readers for constructive criticism. Have faith, be diligent, write.
Who would you like to read A Common Person and Other Stories and why?
Readers who like characters and real situations, and want to think. There’s some mystery here—solving a death in the country by studying the remaining clues. A real love story. Danger: a husband who wants his wife not to be afraid of tornadoes. Snakes. A few stories are suitable for very young people, “The Bully’s Snake” and “Everyday Sky,” for example. They illustrate the proper attitude toward creatures and model responsibility and bravery. Parents and teachers might find those stories especially valuable. I hope the collection will engage readers who want to be entertained but not necessarily to be transported to a familiar, safe, or just pleasant place. Even more, I hope for readers who want to understand others, and to feel sympathy, empathy, and overall, good about their fellow humans.