In Conversation with: Kim Dana Kupperman
October 15, 2010
Every now and then a completely unexpected book grabs (and holds) your attention. Kim Dana Kupperman’s I Just Lately Started Buying Wings is that book. A collection of essays that, together, make up something akin to a memoir, Kupperman hits notes that are almost obligatory in the genre: crazy mother, a difficult childhood, travels far and near, torrid affairs, strange jobs. But in her hands and through her eyes, these oft-told stories become fresh and gripping. We’re thrilled to be able to introduce you to her in the below interview — and thanks, Kim!
WORD: Your book is labeled as an essay collection, but reads not unlike a memoir. Many of the pieces have been previously published. What was the “assembly” process like?
KIM DANA KUPPERMAN: [I’ll answer this question with parts of a talk I gave at last year’s AWP conference, from a panel called “The Essayist’s Dilemma,” which was moderated by Marcia Aldrich, editor of the journal Fourth Genre and included Lucy Ferriss and E. J. Levy.]
The arrangement of my book came about in stages, beginning with that monster called the Creative Thesis, completed after two plus years in a Master of Fine Arts program. After I graduated, I thought that all I’d need to do was write a few more essays to fill out the collection I had so diligently assembled as a thesis. And then a friend read the essay titled “Relief” and said, “This is very interesting, but what happened before the time you wrote about?” That question prompted me to take apart this particular essay and write it into a memoir. Which meant, for practical purposes, removing a piece of writing from an already slim collection. And so I spent almost two years writing a memoir. Though I published chapters from it as discrete essays, it did not sell. After sending it to agents, publishers, and contests and seeing it turned it down, I decided to take a new course of action. I dismantled the memoir, breaking it into discrete autobiographical essays and restoring “Relief,” the essay from which it germinated. I merged these pieces with the essay collection I had already written and to which I had added one or two newer pieces. It occurred to me that if I wanted to publish this book, I’d need to solve the puzzle of how to organize these somewhat-linked-but-mostly-not pieces.
Though a book of discrete essays may be opened and delved into at any given point, most readers, perhaps because we are trained by the beginning-middle-end literary schema, desire an organizing principle, a structure that imposes meaning—even if it is quite nuanced—that relates the parts comprising a whole. Using sections to group the essays would help, I thought. And, the book’s title would derive from one of the essays, and I knew that the title would, eventually, lead me to develop a suitable configuration, but which title to pick, which essay to emphasize? I identified some of the shared preoccupations among the essays—air, wind, flight—as well as some of the overarching themes—departures and disappearances (read “death”), but how to wrap it up in a neat package for the dear readers I imagined on the other side of the page?
When I decided on the title, I Just Lately Started Buying Wings, I realized I’d need a subtitle as the agent of cohesion. I thought of applying a leitmotif of correspondence, using different kinds of letters as subheadings for individual sections. I noted words and phrases that evoked the epistolary: Letters home. Missives, dispatches, correspondence, billets-doux, epistles. Return to sender. Air mail. Parcel post. Sealed with a kiss. Etcetera. I played with the organization that was possible within these different rubrics. “I like the word missive for the subtitle,” I said to my husband during a moment of procrastination induced by coming to a dead halt. “But missives from where?” I wondered. “How about ‘from the interior’?” he suggested. And so I had a title: I Just Lately Started Buying Wings. Missives from the Interior. All that was left was to figure out how to group the essays. I started by using Roman numerals.
When Graywolf Press editor/publisher Fiona McCrae suggested that I change the subtitle of the book to “Missives from the Other Side of Silence,” I agreed. Several months into the copyediting process, I looked at the table of contents. Those Roman numerals seemed lonely. I still saw the collection as needing some sort of organizing principle. And that’s when I returned to the original idea of the epistolary. After all, I thought, in the introduction, Sue Halpern asked readers to approach these essays “as an assortment of letters bundled together,” a phrase that led to the cover design.
I dug out my list of epistolary vocabulary. After looking at the three sections and moving an essay or two, I clearly saw what I needed to do. The first section I titled Letters Home and Abroad, because these pieces were all about my family, here in America and there, in czarist Russia. The second section I called Return to Sender, and in it I included a mix of essays about such diverse subjects as a lover’s suicide, working in a battered women’s shelter, and a meditation on the color orange. In the third section, Billets-doux, I placed all the pieces about love, platonic, romantic, and of language.
W: You’ve traveled quite a bit—you recount episodes in Paris, Kiev, and Moscow, along with various US cities. Which city was your favorite? Is there a trip you wish you could re-do?
KDK: That’s a hard question to answer; all those cities have their own distinct charms. St. Petersburg, which was still called Leningrad when I traveled there, is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited, and also one of the most astonishing because of the color of the older buildings and also because of the fabulous courtyards. I’d like to go there again and spend more time walking the city and exploring.
However, the trip I’d really like to make (which would, of course, lead to a book!) involves traveling the same route my grandmother took to immigrate to the U.S.; she would have likely taken the train out of what was then czarist Russia, departing from a town now on the border of Ukraine and Poland. She embarked on the SS Vaderland in Cherbourg, which is in northwestern France, and landed at Ellis Island in New York City. She probably traveled through Hungary, Austria, Germany, and France to arrive at Cherbourg. And she did this at such a young age for the time (she was twenty in 1911). The parallel trip I’d like to take would follow the path of the radioactive cloud that formed after the Chernobyl disaster, which first hovered over Belarus before migrating west and then north. On such a trip, I’d end up visiting Samiland, a place I’ve dreamt of visiting for decades. Samiland is home to the indigenous people of Scandinavia, the Sami, or the reindeer people, whose lives were altered drastically by Chernobyl, principally because of all the cesium-contaminated reindeer that were slaughtered after the catastrophe.
W: The Chernobyl incident features quite prominently, particularly in regards to its impact on the food supply of Europe. Later on, you mention that the only activism you participate in is food-related: shopping locally and organic, knowing the origin of your food, etc. Do you think your food activism developed out of this understanding of the impact of Chernobyl?
KDK: Food and food safety has always been an important part of my life. I grew up with a lot of women who taught me how to cook various dishes; one of them also taught me to love plants and how to grow food. I worked as a waiter and in restaurant kitchens for over fifteen years, but even before that, I was aware of the dangers and complications of the poisons used in our agribusiness model of food production. I was a fan of Rachel Carson’s as a young girl and knew all the words to Pete Seeger’s great song “The People Are Scratching,” which is a song about how everything is connected. When I was in sixth grade, our school celebrated the first Earth Day; as a kid growing up in New York City, I was very alert to pollution. So for me, food and the environment have always been intertwined; therefore, I was more inclined to dig deeply into understanding the impact of Chernobyl because I was already aware of the toxins in our food.
W: The titular essay comes late in the book, and features an unnamed woman. It feels very separate from the rest of the collection — it doesn’t have a date, and the location is only declared in an off-hand reference to Flatbush Avenue. Can you tell us a bit more about this piece?
KDK: The woman in that essay (“I Just Lately Started Buying Wings”) is very important to me. If I told you about all the love and care she provided me, it would require another book! But for me, her great gifts of love and kindness are represented by the singular act of divulging a secret—her recipe for fried chicken—which may seem mundane, but not for a woman whose acts of supreme creativity occurred in kitchens and went largely unrecognized. Though I keep her identity secret, the theme of secret-keeping, along with the notion of identity, runs through the book in a nuanced way (though the theme of secret-keeping is articulated in the essay titled “Teeth in the Wind”). Sharing that recipe (which is an authentic recipe for fried chicken and worth ignoring the chemicals in the seasoning) is my way of memorializing both her gift of a secret and the artistry involved in the preparation of the chicken.
W: More standard memoirs are often challenged for including incidents that are not actually accurate (I’m thinking here of James Frey and Ishmael Beah’s books in particular). What do you think the temptation is for writers to white-wash or alter the facts? How blurry is the line between creative nonfiction and fiction?
KDK: Memoir is always about memory, or, put another way, how someone remembers an event, a life, relationships. And memory is faulty and subjective. If I remember something one way and another person involved in the same event, life, or relationship remembers it another way, how can one say which account is “right” or “wrong”? That said, if I alter facts, tell you, for example, that I was born in Rome when I was in actuality born in New York City, that’s simply wrong if I’m doing it in a work of nonfiction. But the narrator in memoir and essay must be free to imagine (as long as she tells us she’s in the process of imagining); after all, without speculation, without what Fran Kupfer so aptly calls “the gift of perhaps,” a narrative will remain flat and one-dimensional.
Though I think it is important for writers new to nonfiction to consider what truth in nonfiction means and what the ethical issues are, the conversation about it has become a bit tedious for me, mainly because there is not one writer’s conference I’ve attended in the last seven years where the conversation is not being repeated, ad infinitum. I think the more important issue, perhaps, is why the marketing powers-that-be and television shows like Oprah are running publishing and dictating to bookstores what books to sell, what genre to call these books, and how to sell them. The generic distinctions that have developed have parsed out literature to so many subsets that it’s almost impossible to know where a book will be shelved. My favorite instance of how ludicrous this can become was seeing Chuck Klosterman’s book Eating the Dinosaur on display with other food-related books, including Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Eating the Dinosaur is not, of course, about food.
When hoaxes occur in nonfiction, especially with traumatic cultural events such as the Shoah, it’s very unfortunate, but the questions I think we should be asking include why publishers and editors are so eager to sell such trauma in the package of “a true story,” and why the public so urgently desires such narratives (it can’t be lost on anyone in this debate that James Frey probably laughed all the way to the bank).
I want to quote here from Robert Atwan’s superb keynote talk, delivered at Welcome Table Press’s 2010 inaugural symposium, “In Praise of the Essay: Practice & Form”:
“Research has shown that in conversations lasting at least ten minutes, 20 percent of adults will choose to lie and do so several times a day. In the course of a week, we may deceive 30 percent of the people with whom we interact. The motivations to deceive are obviously numerous and not always for personal advantage. We may lie to others as a form of concealment. As Emerson said, “There is no terror like that of being known….
“If we possessed an informative history of reading—not of literature but of how literature has been read over the centuries—I think we’d find a greater tolerance for essayistic playfulness, artifice, and deception during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when ‘nonfiction’ was genuinely ‘creative.’ Like many other essayists of their eras, writers like Addison and Steel, Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Charles Lamb, and Washington Irving invented characters and situations for their nonfiction works (many of these published in the newspapers of their day), and readers found no problems with this, nor with letters to the author entirely concocted for the sake of the subject. It wasn’t because writers and readers cared less for the truth then than now, but it’s because they cared about a different truth.”
W: What are you working on next?
KDK: I’m working on a memoir called Five Days, about my mother, Dolores Buxton, who came of age in the early 1950s. She was intelligent and beautiful and despite the promise of those two attributes, she came undone, as the song goes. Though I’ve written a lot about her, she still remains complex and interesting and now that I’ve matured as a person and as a writer, I see different ways into understanding and writing about her that I never saw before. I’m also working on a second collection of essays, some more hybrid and experimental, others classically digressive, called Reach for Your Revolver: Musings on Culture and Other Dilemmas.