Rowan Hisayo Buchanan and T Kira Madden on Craft, Candles, and Character
Authors, and Real-Life Friends, in Conversation
T Kira Madden is the author of the memoir Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls. She is still an amateur magician.
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan is the author of Harmless Like You—the winner of The Authors’ Club First Novel Award and a Betty Trask Award. Her short work has appeared in several places including Granta, Guernica, The Guardian, The Harvard Review, and NPR’s Selected Shorts. She is the editor of the Go Home! anthology. Her newest novel is Starling Days.
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan: I thought we’d begin by breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to you, our dear readers. A little bit about T Kira Madden—
She is the sort of writer that people feel they discovered themselves. More than once when I revealed I know her, I’ve seen people’s eyes spark. They tell me they found themselves in her memoir Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls. On the surface this seems quite odd, the memoir is so specific. It’s about loving mannequins, measuring your weight in soup cans, growing up in a mixed race family, confronting your rapist, creepy pen pals, being a daughter unclaimed and then claimed. I doubt any reader can have lived exactly her life and yet they discover a home in her words. She’s just that sort of writer.
So you can see why I leapt at the chance to chat with her about words and magic and just making it through as a writer.
T Kira Madden: I first discovered Rowan’s work in the “slush” pile of my literary magazine, No Tokens, around 2013. It was our first issue, and so, so important to find work that would set the tone, a curation that might reflect our editorial sensibilities. Then I read “Ram,” a very short story (“flash,” as they say), the kind of piece that tells you in two sentences that you’re witnessing someone doing something really special on the page, that true writer buzz. “We—Frannie and me—were out stealing sheep,” I still remember that first line, because I chose it to open the journal, first spot, first impression. At AWP that year, Rowan approached our table and held the book up to cover her face, saying “Hi, I wrote Ram,” or something like that. Rowan is soft spoken, a little timid, except for on the page.
I’ve considered Rowan ‘ohana since that first meeting. She is a dear friend, a true listener and rememberer, and a writer whom I am selfishly glad is always one step ahead of me. She helped me prep for agent queries, then book submission. She told me how it might feel to share my most vulnerable work with the world. “For so long you want people to look,” she said, on one of our epic walks, “But you’ll see. Once it’s all out there, you’ll have moments in which you’ll want them to look away.” It’s been such a privilege to read Rowan’s first novel, Harmless Like You, and now her second, Starling Days, to see her growth in real time, the themes and images that carry and the those which are dropped. I can’t wait for the US to welcome her latest and see what I mean.
RHB: We had this conversation sitting cross legged on the big bed of a Chicago hotel. We were both staying in the same place before our event at the American Writers’ Museum.
It would be both of our last days travelling before our respective tours were cancelled due to COVID-19. Our shared worries, hopes, and fears about the next few months went unrecorded. It was a relief to lean back against the stiff white pillows and to think for a moment about writing.
TKM: I’m obsessed with process lately, specifically repetition in process. What ideas, obsessions, images, or questions are you always after in your work? Do those ideas or questions or images remain the same no matter what you’re working on? For example, do they differ between genres, or perhaps between short and long form? What continuity have you noticed, because I’m always telling my students, “Don’t ever let someone tell you ‘you’ve already written the ‘x’ book, try something new.’” When I look back at my childhood writing projects, they’re about the same things I’m drawn to now, I’m just circling them differently.
RHB: I remember having a conversation with a friend in which I realized that pretty much everything I’d ever written was about two or more slightly broken people trying really hard to love each other. That’s true of the ghost story that I wrote for Granta. It’s true of my first novel, which is about a mother and a son. It’s true of my second novel, which is about a new marriage. It’s true of things I write about friends or of siblings. I even tried to break out of it for one short story and it didn’t work. I ended up writing about a woman whose best friend is her talking oven—which I think might still be the same thing. I guess I can’t help myself! That was such a good question that I now have to ask about your themes. Please tell me, what do you come back to?
TKM: Oh, well, I think I’m always writing about threes, units of three, thinking about a chair with three legs, the balance off, allegiances shifting. Long Live the Tribe is so much about me and my two parents, and also my relationship to those two other “fatherless girls.” I’m always thinking in romantic triangles, family triangles. Everything is a triangle, to me. The lamp on my desk is a pyramid.I realized that pretty much everything I’d ever written was about two or more slightly broken people trying really hard to love each other.
RHB: Have you read May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break? I think you would like it. It’s a short story collection in which every single short story is about the relationship between two people mediated by a third person. I read it multiple times, but I never realized that that was true until I interviewed her for something and she told me this was part of her method of writing the short story collection. It blew my mind.
TKM: That’s amazing, yes! Threes. I also love writing about theme parks, even if it’s not so obvious or literal; I love facades. Absurd displays of celebration. The machinery behind the shiny thing. I love writing about Las Vegas for this reason. So, threesomes and theme parks. And teenagers. And S sounds.
RHB: You write fiction and you write memoir, and you’re married to a poet. Do you think—not that marriage is a genre—
TKM: Marriage is a genre. [laughs]
RHB: Do you think the genre you’re writing in affects craft on that micro sentence level, or do you feel like beautiful writing is the same whatever you’re writing about?
TKM: I’m not sure, though I’m always trying to track things like that. I’ve noticed recently that when I’m working in compression, not necessarily genre, but when I’m chiseling a shorter piece, working something down to a single sentence, humor surfaces. That’s interesting to me, how words, once contained, can become a punchline. When I allow my writing to stretch its legs and expand, things get more serious, dramatic. I think about it in terms of vertical or horizontal writing; rather than moving from A to B to C, horizontally, how can the writing drop into something deeper, and how does that affect my tone? On a macro level I do think I have the same attention to language no matter what I’m writing. Or, I try to. How about you?
RHB: Well, I mean, I think, I started off as a fiction writer and then I got asked to write essays. I started to think a bit about what essays excited me, and what non-fiction excited me. And I realized that it was writers who gave great care to not only the bare facts being conveyed but to the language, sound, and structure they use. For example, I was really excited to pick up a copy of The Crying Book by Heather Christie, which takes a poetic, fragmented approach to history, psychology, and biology while at the same time being a memoir. Or of course the great Maggie Nelson—queen of fragments. Or Leslie Jamison who puts such care into constructing the character of Leslie Jamison who then guides us through her subject matter.
And I found that the desire to combine beauty, story, and information followed me back to fiction. For instance, in Starling Days I have a character who is a classicist, and who is very concerned with what it means that she might be suicidal. She thinks a lot about the literature and the language around that idea. I wanted to let a fictional character loose on all those non-fictional ideas.
Which brings me to one of the things I really wanted to ask you about. When I was writing Starling Days, suicidal ideas are a big part of the book. One of the things I was concerned with was trying to find a way to write about things that weren’t necessarily healthy without either fetishizing them or demonizing them. And I know that you write about some really difficult topics—depression, drug addiction, more than that, abuse—and you do it, I think, you handle that line really well. And I was wondering if that is a responsibility you are aware of as you’re writing and how do you approach it?It’s tough if someone is a person who provided no light in your lived experience, to offer them that light on a page. But you have to do it, sometimes, to develop a fuller shadow behind them.
TKM: It’s something I deeply consider; that said, it’s something I don’t feel I can answer. When people use words like glamorizing or glorifying or vilifying or fetishizing—I think we all have different definitions of what those words mean and what they look like in action. I can’t concern myself with how people might reckon with those definitions because we all have such different versions of reality. Good and evil. Lion or wizard. So many false binaries. And that’s something I was thinking about with your work as well, thinking so much as a teacher and as a writer: what makes a “likeable” character? And who gets to decide? Those words hold such different meanings across cultural lines, too. So why concern ourselves with one idea of it?
All I can do is try to write the characters with full dimension…as Jo Ann Beard once said in the classroom, “A circle is flat until it has light and shadow, and then it becomes 3-D, then it comes off the page.” I always keep that in mind, especially with non-fiction; it’s tough if someone is an abuser, a person who provided no light in your lived experience, to offer them that light on a page. But you have to do it, sometimes, to develop a fuller shadow behind them. I don’t care about likability. I much prefer looking over a character’s shoulder, seeing what they can’t yet reach. That’s drama. Dimensionality over glory.
RHB: I think that’s very powerful.
TKM: I’m so interested in how you’re always writing characters who might be considered deeply “flawed,” characters who make mistakes. Why do you think you might be drawn to those characters? Do you prescribe to that same language of “likable,” “non-likable,” “flawed,” or consider classic archetypes? How do you approach those characters, or do they just come to you?
RHB: I sometimes use the shorthand of saying “unlikeable” because it’s a shorthand for a lot of the characters I like to read. But I think the choice to say “I like unlikeable characters,” is my way of reminding myself what an odd concept that is. “I like unlikeable characters,” what does that even mean? I think to describe a character as likable or unlikeable is to think of readers as a monolith. As if everyone liked or disliked the same things.
I do think of my characters as flawed. In part because they often wish they were better, smarter, wiser people than they are. But don’t we all? I try to write humans as I see them. Everybody I’ve ever met has fucked up or been insensitive or been cruel or made the wrong choice because they just didn’t have enough information sometime. So they’re the people that I want to write about.
What I’m really, really, really interested in is what they do next. Once you’ve fucked up, once you’ve made the mistake, what do you do next and why do you do it? I wouldn’t say that being picked up by the police on a bridge because they think you are going to kill yourself is a mistake or a flaw or something evil. But there’s a reason that Starling Days starts from this point of disaster, and then tries to figure out what happens next.
And there are some other mistakes in that book. [laughs] She continues to make mistakes, dear reader. But there are also snatched joys. I wouldn’t know what to do with a character who had everything put together.Everybody I’ve ever met has fucked up or been insensitive or been cruel or made the wrong choice because they just didn’t have enough information sometime.
TKM: On Mina [the character from Starling Days], I was curious about what it’s like writing about depression, which is something you do so beautifully, when so many of us, when we think about depression, we think of our inability to express. And that seems so challenging, the dullness that one feels in the depressed body, versus how textured and vibrantly you write about it.
RHB: Thank you. That means a lot. I do think people fight great wars inside their own minds. I don’t say that to glorify the process—they’re both messy and painful and there are difficult choices and you wonder if it was necessary at all. But there is also a drama and a bravery to required to participate. And I suppose drew to me to write about it. I think if I’d written from the point of view of knowing the answer about how to be the perfect depressed person would have felt-flat and dictatorial to me. I simply thought the struggle was worth recording.
TKM: That’s beautiful.
RHB: In my first drafts, when I was writing about mental illness, I let all my feelings sit on the page. And then I pulled back to edit. I considered what was important to me and what was important to the narrative. It’s a tricky business to craft emotion, and I was thinking that your work always feels tremendously emotional to me. But also tremendously crafted.
I think a lot of people see those as opposites. I teach, and students sometimes feel like if they edit their work they’ll be editing out their emotion. I wonder how you think about that?
TKM: I wrote the LitHub essay “Against Catharsis” and I think people who only read the title and subheader, “writing is not therapy,” thought I was prescribing to that ideology, which isn’t really accurate to what I believe, and not what that essay was about. I do teach writing as a therapeutic practice—it’s something that matters a great deal to me—but I think it can be more than that.
I think often first drafts contain that emotional spillage, the romanticized idea of “writing as catharsis.” That’s certainly the case for me, particularly with nonfiction. But leaning into craft helps me build an experience or sensation into something that can be shared, and it’s also a way to allow myself some distance from the lived experience—it’s a way to feel safer. I don’t want to say that I’m polishing off what’s real. But it’s not a diary entry; the crafted piece is an offering, a gesture towards grace, maybe healing. It is coming from a place of vulnerability, looking to heal by shaping something of my own, because I’ve had control of so little in my life. I think that’s where craft and vulnerability and rigor collide. The act itself is the rigor, the power, I think—that’s what I’m trying to say.
RHB: I have a fun question for you, now that we’ve talked about all these serious topics. I think you’re someone who brings quite a lot of magic to your writing process. Every time I see a photograph of your writing desk at a residency it looks like a very beautiful space. And I was wondering if you wanted to talk to us about any of your rituals or objects or thoughts that you like to bring to writing.
TKM: Even though I try so hard not to be, I am deeply superstitious. My desk has to be curated and designed a certain way for individual projects. I burn the same candle, always, and I only burn it if I’m writing; it’s an olfactory cue that I need to be working. I like a lava lamp because it feels like a metronome, the up and down movement of the wax; that helps me with timing. I have the pyramid lamp, which is new for the new book project I’m writing. And I always have pictures and references all around me. Always, the 1996 Olympic gymnastics team. Certain projects require a different kind of light, a different color, new touchstones. Lately I have toy cars on the desk or objects of decay. With Long Live, it was all pop culture, bright neons, shiny textures, glitter. It just helps me feel centered, sitting inside the world of the work feels good to me.It’s not a diary entry; the crafted piece is an offering, a gesture towards grace, maybe healing.
I only write on a typewriter for a first draft. And I don’t do that to be “cool” or interesting, it’s just that I learned to write on a typewriter, so that feels most like home. It very practically forces me to write a second draft when I transcribe to the computer, otherwise I might not edit sentence by sentence. I also love the sound, the crash that fills your ears feels really satisfying when you’re building something, you know? How about you?
RHB: I think it’s weird, I really want to be that sort of writer. Every now and then I try, I’m like, “This is going to be my ritual.” And there are things I do. I often write in notebooks for a similar reason—it makes me redraft. But I don’t always. Sometimes I burn a candle. But I don’t always.
Writing was the magic that I needed in my life for a long time when I wanted to escape or beat loneliness or find peace or make time go forwards. When I was young and sad, and time seemed endless and the fog of writing would make it disappear. By writing, by reading. I would look and say, “Oh, the day is gone,” and I think that when I add needing to do other rituals part of my heart rebels. Because I don’t want any barriers between me and that magic.
Though I must admit in the case of complete block—I do have some emergency writing rituals.
I met you when you didn’t have a book yet. You were still a beautiful writer and you were the editor-in-chief, which you still are, of No Tokens magazine. I was so impressed by the community you built, both in terms of the editors and writers you lifted up. I was living in a different state and yet, I felt really happy knowing that you’d built and fostered this thing. I wondered if you have any advice for people who may not feel they have the community they want around them but are trying to build one.
TKM: I read every day without exception. I try to read the books on my shelves, but I also try to read something published online on any given day. A new poem, a new story, whatever I may have the time for. Sometimes it’s not much. Still, if I love a thing it feels like my greatest charge on this Earth to tell the creator how much I loved it. I’ve been known to write thank you cards to dead writers, and if they’re alive and online I’ll often reach out and say, “Thank you so much for saving me in these ways.” You don’t have to slide into someone’s DMs to do that, you might tweet or post about that piece and say, “I really loved this thing, maybe you will, too.” I think that alone, these gestures of gratitude, can help build community, and I certainly did that long before I had a book.
So few people, relatively, will read our work and spend time with it unless we’re really lucky, so that Thank you, moments of “feeding the lake,” that’s everything. For every semester I’ve taught so far, my students final project is to write a series of thank you cards to editors and contributors of literary magazines. They subscribe to the magazines, and they send those letters out in the mail. I ask them to never demand a response or expect one, all that matters is that the person hears it.
RHB: I think that’s beautiful. Every time anyone said anything kind to me about my work, on the internet, they could be across the ocean, they don’t need to have any followers, they could have five followers, I feel incredible. It makes me feel brighter and fuller. Often I respond to those people with a heart emoji or a thank you and a smiley face, because the things I feel would be too intense and weird to put on the internet.
TKM: I relate to that so hard.
RHB: Sometimes I hope that they don’t think that the thank you is just an auto response, because it never is. I think it’s also a very beautiful thing to write to people and say thank you for their work. I have been able to meet some of the writers who are my heroes. But I would love them even if I never had met them.
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s book, Starling Days, is out now from The Overlook Press.