Festival Feature: Kathleen Norris

Kathleen Norris: Dakota Featured at 2014 South Dakota Festival of Books

Kathleen Norris

Featured Book: Dakota: A Spiritual Geography

1. Have you ever presented at the South Dakota Festival of Books before? If so, tell us your favorite memory. If not, tell us what you are expecting and why you signed on.

I’ve never attended; am expecting to hear some good readings, see some old friends and make new ones. I expect to enjoy conversations with other writers and with readers.

2. What is the earliest memory you have of books and/or reading?

I was 3 or 4, sitting on my mother’s lap at the piano. We were singing from a children’s song book. I realized that the black marks on the page had some relation to what we were singing. I didn’t know enough to call what my mom was doing reading, but I became determined to learn all I could about those fascinating, mysterious black marks on the page.

3. Who is your favorite author and why?

Emily Dickinson. For a million reasons; her nerve, her deliciously sharp sense of humor. I love her for both her poems AND her letters. I re-read the three-volume set of letters every few years and learn something new each time.

4. If you have to give one piece of succinct advice to an aspiring author, what would it be?

Read. As much as you can. Great literature, cheesy novels. Slow, careful going and page turners. Read ancient literature with an open mind — it helps expose our modern and often foolish prejudices. Read about things you know little about. To learn about contemporary Egypt, for example, Alaa Al Aswany’s novel The Yacoubian Building, or Lila Ahmed’s memoir, A Border Passage. Read about things that don’t even interest you. With a good enough writer, magic can happen. When I was editing the Best American Essays for Houghton Mifflin a few years ago, I was astonished to find that one of my favorites was an essay about boxing. You’d have to pay me a fortune to attend a boxing match, but that essay was a gem. (It’s “Cut Time” by Carlo Rotella.)

5. Tell us one fact about yourself that nobody knows.

During the hard South Dakota winter that drove me to learn to knit, I watched a lot of NFL games. One so-bad-it’s-wonderful movie that I love is Repo Man.

6. What was the greatest moment of your literary career?

When I gave a copy of my first book to my parents.

7. Describe the feeling you had when you first held a finished, published copy of a book you had written.

It was a copy of the Tennessee Poetry Journal, which had accepted a poem I wrote in college. When it came in the mail, I was grateful, amazed, and a little scared — this was serious!

8. What is the best movie adaptation of a book you have ever seen? The worst?

Two bests: the stunning Children of Men, based on a PD James novel, and The Descendants, the best movie about a part of modern Hawaiian life that I am very familiar with. In both cases — unusual for me — I liked the movie better. Kaui Hemmings’ Descendants is a good novel — exceptional for a first novel. But Alexander Payne is a master of cinema.

One worst: The Scarlet Letter with Demi Moore. I couldn’t watch it all the way through.

One tie: Jesus’s Son, a great novel by Denis Johnson; also a great movie, directed by Alison Maclean.

9. Write a haiku that describes you as a writer.

No can do. No way

haiku. Two words only: no can do

haiku. No way can do.

10. What is the strangest question you have ever been asked related to your career as an author or your writings?

Nothing stands out. But sometimes a seemingly simple question can lead to unexpected places. When I was working as an artist in the schools, a little boy once asked me how long it had taken me to write a poem that I had just read to the class. I told him that I had scribbled a draft, and then put it away for a while, and came back to it a few weeks later, and eventually over the course of a month or two, I had the poem. (He sighed — a month can seem like an eternity to a child.) But then I said that since the poem was about an experience I’d had when I was very young, maybe I had been writing it my whole life. That seemed to cheer him immensely.

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