Our first 10 Questions interview posted on August 8, 2016. This week we reach a milestone with the posting of our 75th interview. To celebrate this achievement, we stepped outside our normal format and invited two literary artists from our region, Tricia Booker and Darlyn Finch Kuhn, to interview one another. Below you will find the interview that Booker conducted with Finch Kuhn. In a separate post you can read the interview that Finch Kuhn conducted with Booker. Both Booker and Finch Kuhn are featured readers in this year's JaxbyJax Literary Arts Festival, scheduled for Saturday, November 11, 2017.
Darlyn Finch Kuhn looks like she could walk off the page of a book about Southern hospitality. She has a gracious smile, an infectious laugh, and a way of putting herself together so that she’s always appropriately adorned to go to a funeral, a cocktail party, or breakfast at Cracker Barrel. The sweet demeanor hides a fierce ability to string words together in a way that doesn’t just tell a story - it makes the story sing.
Kuhn first started writing prior to age 5 - while her brother was at school, she wrote and illustrated little books - but she was a little bit older when she read the book Old Yeller, and realized she had found her calling. “The people in that book talked the way the people in my life talked,” she said. And she realized she could write about what she knew - growing up on the Northside of Jacksonville, fishing on the Trout River, and listening to her mama teach her about life.
Her mother, Kuhn said, never finished high school, but she had a very curious mind, and she took her children to the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, free Jacksonville Symphony concerts, and any other affordable cultural event she could find. She immersed her children in the arts, and such exposure emboldened her daughter to keep writing. Kuhn earned a B.A. in English from Rollins College and a M.F.A. from Spalding University. Her first book, Red Wax Rose, a poetry and short story collection, was published by Shady Lane Press in 2007, and her second book of poetry followed the next year. But deep inside her was a story she had been unable to tell.
At age 17, her father died after several heart attacks and strokes. But before he died, he was placed on life support. The laws then didn’t allow for living wills and right-to-die movements were in their infancy. For days, Kuhn, her mother, and brother walked the halls of the hospital, waiting for her dad to either wake up, die, or have five flatlined brain scans, all 24 hours apart. “I knew I had to tell the world that this was the wrong way to die,” she said. But for decades, whenever she sat down to write the story, her hands shook and her breath shortened. Finally, a writing workshop at Rollins College helped her work through the block - and that very day, she wrote a poem about that difficult time. From the poem came a short story, and from the short story came Sewing Holes, Kuhn’s award-winning novel about a young girl growing up Southern in steamy 1970s Florida and struggling to figure out how faith, love, and family fit together.
Kuhn’s poems have been read by Garrison Keillor on the Writers Almanac, and she has been interviewed on World Radio Paris. She’s the head Scribbler of the Scribbles literary newsletter, and she was the 19th Kerouac Project writer-in-residence at The Kerouac Project of Orlando.
When she’s not tapping into her considerable creative mine, she’s the president of Brad Kuhn & Associates, a marketing and public relations firm. Her favorite clients? Writers, of course. Which is win for the rest of us.
10 Questions with Darlyn Finch Kuhn
Tell us about the re-emergence of the Southern Gothic style of writing and the characteristics that set it apart from other styles and subgenres.
Traditional Southern Gothic literature has earned its place in the canon through classic works by authors like William Faulkner, Harper Lee, Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Conner, and Shirley Jackson. It fell from favor for a while, but a whole new generation of current writers are rediscovering this fascinating fiction sub-genre. Bastard Out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison; Before Women Had Wings, by Connie May Fowler, and Dream Chaser, by Pat Spears are three examples.
My writing workshop, “Weird Characters, Strange Places, and Tough Times,” showcases those three characteristics of Southern Gothic, old and new. And I should note that fiction dealing with disenfranchised voices in warped communities, like Ever Yrs, by Nance Van Winkle, is no longer limited to being set in the American South.
One easy way to differentiate old and new Southern Gothic, besides the date the books were published, is to understand that old Southern Gothic characters were often afraid of the supernatural, while new Southern Gothic characters are more likely afraid of their relatives.
The story and characters of Sewing Holes really captivate and resonate with readers. Did personal experiences influence this book at all? How much research and how much of your own imagination went into developing the story and characters?
Sewing Holes began as a memoir, so personal experiences are scattered throughout. I spent a lot of time researching the Vietnam War, so that I got the timeline right.
I experienced the usual worries that memoirists have: What will Uncle So-and-so think? Will my mother get mad and refuse to finish reading the book? Is this an invasion of my cousins’ privacy? I workshopped the book with the wonderful novelist Connie May Fowler, and one day she told me if I was ever going to finish the book, I had to “change the names and make stuff up.”
Subsequently, Darlyn became Honey, and everyone else got a new name, as well. I combined some characters, and started letting imaginary things happen to them. It freed me to tell Honey’s story, rather than my own, and that’s when the characters began to surprise and delight me. A minor character in my real life, my step-grandmother, as the character Maw Maw in the book, insisted on becoming a major mentor to my protagonist, and now I can’t imagine the book without her.
I now teach a workshop called, “Change the Names and Make Stuff Up,” to help other struggling memoirists do the same.
As the President/COO of a marketing and PR firm, what are some important trends you are seeing that authors should follow in order to engage their target audience and maximize their discoverability?
The first trend to understand is that, with the advent of self-publishing, the competition your book is facing for the attention of readers has increased exponentially. As the market moves from traditional, independent mom-n-pop bookstores to the big chains, and beyond that, with some of the big chains closing down their brick-and-mortar storefronts in favor of an online presence, today’s author has to understand the book business more than ever before. And that’s not easy, because even the big publishing houses and the agents who have provided them with a steady stream of successful books in the past don’t know quite what to make of the ever-changing marketplace monopolized by giants like Amazon.
Second, authors have to understand that they will be almost entirely in charge of marketing their books. The days of a big publishing house sending you on an all-expense-paid world-wide book tour are long gone. Bloom where you’re planted – set up readings in cities where loved ones will come out and buy your books, and then saturate the media in that area with information about you, your book, and your event. This prospect will terrify the stereotypical shy author who wants to hide in a room of her own and just write, but is a necessary evil to get the book in the hands of readers. Of course, authors with the resources to do so can always hire publicists like Brad Kuhn & Associates, LLC, but it’s not cheap.
Many poets struggle to get their work heard or seen – what advice do you have for aspiring poets who wish to have their work published, and what outlets should they pursue?
First, study the great poets. A decent poetry anthology is a great place to start, and the website poetry.com will introduce you to both classic and contemporary poets of note.
Second, write the very best poems you can, and find a poetry critique group or workshop to help you improve. My e-newsletter Scribbles lists those types of resources. You can sign up at my website. It’s free, and I’ll never sell the list.
Third, read your work at open mic nights. This is a way to hear the poem aloud and gauge audience reaction. There is nothing worse than a poet mumbling his poem as he stares down at the podium – or into his phone – and open mics will help you become an effective reader by speaking up and making eye contact with listeners. There are very few thrills in life compared with holding an audience in the palm of your hand while you recite a poem that makes them laugh when you want them to laugh, cry when you want them to cry, and break into spontaneous applause at the end.
Fourth, I suggest entering poetry contests. Winners are often awarded with chapbook publication, and then they are on their way. Of course, if you enjoy a particular poetry book, you can always send your work to the agent who represents that poet, or directly to the publisher of that book, for consideration.
Has the "spoken word" genre of poetry, which often depends on performance for maximum impact, enhanced or overshadowed traditional poetry? Have you incorporated some aspects of the spoken word trends into your own performances?
Poetry began in spoken form, and was only later written down. I believe page poetry can be improved by being read aloud, and that many spoken word artists could improve their work by paying attention to its lines on the page. In other words, one informs the other.
But yes, being a spoken word poet has improved my reading skills dramatically. When I read from my novel, for example, I use some of the techniques I’ve learned from open mic nights and poetry slams to engage the audience. Although Sewing Holes has a beautiful cover, and my publicist and publisher work hard to promote the book, it is usually only after I read from the book that people line up to buy it.
Your debut novel Sewing Holes was published by a small, independent press. How did this partnership come about? What are the benefits of working with this size of publisher, and what are the challenges?
I met my publisher, Joan Leggitt, when we both had dinner with Connie May Fowler during one of her workshops. Much later, she published Eve’s Garden, by Glenda Bailey Mershon, another writer at that workshop, who put in a good word for me with Joan, suggesting she read my manuscript. This should illustrate the point that writers should network with other writers, and be supportive of their work. Besides it being the right thing to do, they’ll remember that when you need something, later on.
The first benefit of working with Twisted Road Publications is Joan herself, because she is a brilliant editor. It took me twelve years to write Sewing Holes, and I wasn’t about to hand my book over to anyone I didn’t trust completely to do right by it, and by me. The second benefit was that I was only her fifth author, so I didn’t have to compete with a stable of famous, established authors. It was like being involved with a supportive, loving family, and we really treated one another that way.
The challenges of a small press are related to limited resources for advances, publicity, and distribution, but I really felt that Joan did all she could in those areas, and was actually quite generous to me as a first-time novelist. She made my dream come true, and I will only and always be forever grateful. I just want to make her proud.
As a writer who also works full-time, how do you carve out writing time? Do you block out days or hours, or just grab time when you can find it? Do you have a favorite space in which to write?
Did I mention the twelve years it took to finish? When I started writing Sewing Holes, I was in a first marriage where I did not make writing a priority; I was a busy mother, a technical writer with a full-time day job; and a college student who finally earned my bachelor’s degree at age forty-five.
I wrote whenever and wherever I could, but mostly at an antique desk that one of my ancestors brought to America from Germany. It was usually at the end of the day, when I was tired out from everything else.
Then I got divorced, and applied for a writer’s residency at The Kerouac Project of Orlando. Out of 180 applicants, I was one of four chosen for the 2006-2007 season. For three months, I lived alone in the house where On the Road was published, and where Kerouac wrote its sequel, The Dharma Bums, in eleven days and nights. For the first time in my life, writing came first, and the project’s publishing house, Shady Lane Press, published my first poetry/short story collection, Red Wax Rose. So, I guess I’d have to say that the Kerouac House was my favorite-ever place to write. I’ll always be grateful for my time there.
The way you portray the relationship between Honey and the grownups in her life is so poignant and emotional. Did you find yourself getting emotional as you wrote it?
The poet Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” I’m happy to report that Honey surprised me in various ways, and yes, she made me cry. But she also made me laugh out loud, and I hope my readers enjoy the same reactions. I think the relationship between children and adults is complex and emotional, and I want my readers to experience the gamut.
Can you name some writers who've influenced the evolution of your writing style? Are there any works you return to again and again for inspiration or guidance?
Connie May Fowler, of course, as I mentioned earlier, was the person without whom my novel would still likely be a collection of poems and short stories in a drawer. My other teachers at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, were invaluable help, as well.
Sena Jeter Naslund also made a lasting impression on my writing, and I believe her novel Four Spirits is a book that every American (every human, really) should read. She leads the MFA program at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky, and one of her ekphrastic art lectures led me to write a pivotal scene in the novel about making beauty out of nothing, and led to its title, Sewing Holes. The other Spalding teachers contributed to my growth as a writer in myriad ways.
The third writer who has influenced my writing is the love of my life, my second and final husband, Brad Kuhn, who is my first reader and completely unimpressed with my frequent declarations that, “I’m a reader, not a writer.” He has taught me that it’s okay to be goofy on the page, and that it’s okay to ask for, and to give, uninterrupted writing time, and honest, gentle critiques, to one another.
The way Sewing Holes ends leaves room for a sequel. Do you ever find yourself thinking about Honey, and about her life as an adult? Have the characters stayed with you even as you've moved on to other projects?
Because she began her life as me, Honey is with me everywhere I go, and I often review my experiences through the lens of her character. I believe that Honey has more to say, and when she’s ready to speak, she’ll let me know.
I sometimes wear a tee-shirt that reads, “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel,” and it’s a warning that people who know me well take to heart.
We'd like to thank Darlyn Finch Kuhn and Tricia Booker for their participation in this interview. We'd also like to thank you for taking the time to read this week's 10 Questions interview. If you enjoyed what you read or you found it engaging, please consider making a donation to the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville. Your donation supports the advancement of the arts and culture in Northeast Florida.
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