An Interview with Theresa Kishkan

Theresa Kishkan is the recent winner of the inaugural Creative Nonfiction Collective’s Readers’ Choice Award, in recognition of two fine collections of essays, Red Laredo Boots and Phantom Limb. Her answers to the questions in this interview offer clues to her writing process and suggest why, for her, the essay is such a congenial form. She watches the world intently. She reads widely and she reads deeply, without regard for fad or fashion. She follows her own passions and preoccupations, lets her questions take her where they will, and trusts in the journey. I talked to her about Phantom Limb and her other work.

Theresa Kishkan

Theresa Kishkan

Q: What inspired you to write this book (Phantom Limb)? Why did you choose to use the essay form in particular, since you also work in other genres?

A: I love the essay for its space and potential, for its generous willingness to expand to include so many of my preoccupations. I’m less certain that I chose it than that it chose me. What happens is this: I find myself musing about particular things and I begin to write about them, usually by following a thread. When I begin, I don’t always perceive that the thread is part of a skein and so I discover that the thing that has interested me is connected to other things, many of them unexpected. I didn’t know, for instance, when I began to write about bears in “month of wild berries picking” that the piece would ultimately concern itself with the wild nature of women’s sexuality. Or that writing about quilts would lead me to plunder the rag-bag of family history.

Q: What, if anything, do you feel distinguishes the personal essay as a genre?

A: Its capacity to be self-revelatory, to range across a wide field and share the writer’s pleasures and discoveries, in an intimate voice.

Q: What was the biggest challenge you encountered in completing this book?

A: I had difficulty restraining myself in particular essays. I’ve suggested that the form is expansive but sometimes I found I was testing its limits. I felt such urgency to get everything in!

Q: What was the greatest reward?

A: The luxury of writing about things I love and have paid attention to, then having others read and respond to such personal passions.

Q: What do you like about writing essays, or how would you compare your experience of writing essays and poetry (or fiction)?

A: I began my writing life as a poet but stopped writing completely when my children were small. Returning to it later on, I found that I couldn’t stretch the line of a poem to get it to do what I wanted it to do. Other poets could, and did, but I needed a different kind of narrative line, I suppose – one that reflected the tension between the private and public, wild and domestic, Cartesian and quotidian. Poetry did teach me to trust that connections could be made and sustained across time and space. I never intended to write fiction at all but discovered that by employing a fictional perspective, I could sometimes get closer to what I wanted and couldn’t quite negotiate with my own voice, my own experience. Essays use techniques and strategies from these other genres, of course, and that’s part of their intense satisfaction to me, both as a writer and a reader.

Q: Why did you choose this particular title for your work?

A: I wanted a title which would reference the past, the layers of history that we carry, lose, and constantly try to relocate and come to terms with: a shifting and transitory archive.

Q: What books might you tell aspiring writers to read, and why?

A: I read like a magpie, I suspect, choosing books like bright objects. It’s often only after I’ve read them that I realize their value to me as a writer. I have shelves of field guides, for instance, and have come to understand how they form part of the scaffolding of my own work. I consider myself a citizen of a specific geography and I think it’s important to know the place as well as I’m able to. This means reading it with the same attention that I’d devote to any other text, alert to its grammar, its syntax, its word-hoard and tropes. Plant taxonomy, marine systems, geology, the archaeological record – they have a lot to tell us about relationships, precision, and history. So I’d suggest that aspiring writers read any and everything and in the process they will absorb something of the beautiful possibilities of language and form.

Q: Who are some of your favourite authors, and why?

A: I’ve counted Gary Snyder as a literary mentor since I first began to write. His work grows out of an attention to the world around him and he’s that rare thing (these days, at any rate), the passionate amateur – house-builder, philosopher, naturalist, activist, poet-scholar, traveller. . . John Berger’s essays and novels always engage me. Pliny the Elder’s Natural History has pride of place on my desk because no one has quite that arrogant confidence and insatiable curiousity. A few years ago I discovered Ellen Meloy’s books about the red rock country of southern Utah. She wrote with ardour and humour. I read Jorie Graham’s poems because of their electrifying intelligence. I admire Harold Rhenisch’s work in general for the originality of his vision. I keep Herodotus’s The Histories (in the excellent Landmark edition) at hand because it’s such a sustained careful work of historiography. I love the poems and translations of Michael Longley for the delicacy of his language and the density of his affections. I think the Scottish writer Kathleen Jamie is extraordinary. Her poetry is concise and fine, and her essay collection Findings is quietly brilliant.

Q: What are you reading right now?

A: I’m reading a strange and wonderful book by John Keast Lord, a veterinarian and naturalist with the Northwest Boundary Commission from 1858-62. He wrote a memoir of this experience, The Naturalist in Vancouver Island and British Columbia, published in England in 1866, which in fact ranges all over the Pacific Northwest and California. It’s wildly eccentric and disorganized but it has moments when one realizes what an astute observer this man was. Nothing escapes his notice or comment. There are windows in this book that allow a long view, a historical view, to a time and place I love and which I fear is threatened by the nervous energy of a culture unaware of what it’s losing (Barry Lopez calls it “the commodification of landscape”). The great runs of salmon described by Lord, the vast groves of Garry oaks on Vancouver Island, the camas and butterflies and grey wolves near Fort Victoria…

Theresa writes:

I was born in Victoria, B.C. and have lived on both coasts of Canada as well as in Greece, England and Ireland. I make my home on the Sechelt Peninsula with my husband, John Pass. John and I built our house and raised our three children on an acreage near Sakinaw Lake. We operate a small private press, High Ground Press, printing broadsheets and chapbooks on a 19th century platen press.

I began my writing life as a poet and published three full-length collections of poetry – Arranging the Gallery (Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1976), Ikons of the Hunt (Sono Nis, 1978) and Black Cup (Beach Holme, 1992) – as well as several chapbooks, including Morning Glory (Reference West, 1992) which won the bpNichol Chapbook Prize the year it was published.

After the births of my three children, I turned to prose and published Red Laredo Boots (New Star Books, 1996), a collection of personal essays about history and travel. Since then I have published two novels, Sisters of Grass (Goose Lane Editions, 2000) and A Man in a Distant Field (The Dundurn Group, 2004), and a novella, Inishbream (first published in a limited edition by the Barbarian Press in 1999 and then as a trade edition by Goose Lane Editions in 2001).A second collection of essays, Phantom Limb, was published by Thistledown in 2007. The Age of Water Lilies, a novel set in the orchard community of Walhachin in the years just before and during the Great War, has just been published by Brindle & Glass. My work has been nominated for a number of awards, including the Pushcart Prize, the Relit Award, the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and the Hubert Evans Award for Non-Fiction. Inishbream won an Alcuin Award for Design Excellence.

Here is the beautiful cover of Theresa’s new novel, just released today!

Comments (6)

  1. Caroline Woodward September 15, 2009 at 5:48 pm

    What an inspiring interview! Such clarity of voice along with a profound and wide-ranging intelligence, what used to be called ‘meeting up with a very fine mind’. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Susan Olding September 15, 2009 at 6:02 pm

    Thank you, Caroline – and agreed!

  3. Barbara shumiatcher October 16, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    Thank you for this wonderful talk.
    The reading list in itself is a challenge, a call. “Citizen of a specific geography..” learning its…word horde…tropes…”
    how glad I am to recognize some sources of your rich rich style in these remarks, dear Theresa.Thsnk you Susan for the questions that opened this discussion.

  4. Susan Olding October 16, 2009 at 5:32 pm

    When I read Theresa’s responses I immediately made a list of books I wanted to read! This is one of the greatest pleasures of these interviews for me. Thank you, Barbara, for reading.

  5. Richard Gilbert August 3, 2010 at 6:24 pm

    Thank you for this interview, Susan. Theresa Kishkan has an interesting, different take on writing and living. It makes me realize that more and more writers seem to lack a sense of place, and it’s so important.

  6. Pingback: The New Quarterly | Proved on the Pulses: On the Essay and its Literary Cousins

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