Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., The Washington Post, BOMB, The Believer, The Times Literary Supplement, and elsewhere. Her novella, Ceremonials, came out in early 2020 from Kernpunkt Press. Find her at kcoldiron.com or on Twitter @ferrifrigida.
Kate Finegan: You’ve discussed how Florence + the Machine’s album Ceremonials inspired this novella, but I’d also love to hear about how it impacted your writing process.
Katharine Coldiron: I heard a story in the subtext of the album, so I thought I would bring it out into text. That’s how the book came to be. As I was drafting, I used resonant words and phrases from the album as touchstones for the prose, as opposed to touchstones for the story. At the story level, mood and atmosphere were priority one, but in constructing it on a sentence-by-sentence level, there were certain words that I kept coming back to, such as “concentrate” and “never let me go.”
KF: We often don’t discuss the prose itself when we discuss fiction. Your prose has an extremely musical quality, in part because of those refrains or touchstones from the album. This might be a pretty abstract question, but what does the unit of a sentence mean to you in the architecture of the narrative?
KC: Oh, what an amazing question. I come back often to a story Annie Dillard shared in A Writer’s Life. A student asked a famous writer, “Do you think I could be a writer?” The famous writer said, “I don’t know. Do you love sentences?” That, to me, is the one crucial quality of being a writer. I have been proven wrong about this; I know very good writers who don’t pay attention to sentences. But to me, the unit of the sentence is paramount. It is absolutely the most important thing in building a book, much less a paragraph; you have to start there.
As I read work that has been influential to other people, I notice that the Hemingway and Raymond Carver sentences are more valuable to the market of short stories and literary magazines. I’m not interested in those sentences. They seem miserly to me. I love Faulkner’s and Proust’s sentences. I taught a sentence workshop a while ago, and I presented one of Proust’s sentences and asked, “How would you edit this?” Everyone in the room just stared at it, because you could trim it down to make it more sensible and comprehensible, but it would not be what it is. It wouldn’t be a pristine sentence; it would be something miserly.
Because the sentence is so important to me, I wanted to make sure that every sentence in this novella was a good one, a musical one, an interesting one. Robert Frost said, “The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader,” and I wanted people to be able to hear the book. I’m not especially musical, so the best I can do is make sure that the sentences are pleasing to my ear. I hoped that the inspiration for this novella would make the text more musically-inclined than just making attractive sentences.
KF: Is reading aloud part of your process?
KC: It is not. I love reading aloud what I get the chance to do it in front of an audience, but when I write, I don’t read it aloud. I do sound it out in my head; that’s how I try to make it sound good as I’m editing.
KF: I also noticed, moving beyond the sentence level, that there’s so much variety in the rhythms of your sentences. For instance, there’s one sentence where you have a list of items with no commas: “Above the surface boiled the opposite of peace, children gulls waves hotdogs popcorn butter fried dough sizzle colored towels umbrellas people people people.” I love that, and it is followed by two sentence fragments: “Underneath, wadded ears, clouded eyes. Dim noise.” Then you have many sentences that are more Faulknerian, which we discussed.
KC: I’m so glad you noticed the rhythm and variety. I’ll bow, as I have many times, to Lidia Yuknavitch, who, even more daringly than Woolf, knows grammar and breaks it apart. I do it a lot more sparingly than she does, but she inspires me.
KF: I was thinking about Woolf when I was reading Ceremonials, specifically the use of time. It is not a long novella, but so much time passes and spirals out from this formative loss in youth. How did you find and manage the timeline for the story?
KC: Unlike other books that I’ve written, this one wasn’t very carefully planned in advance. I started writing and was surprised where I ended up. The idea was basically what happens when a love affair between two girls ends with death. Then I thought about what happens out there in the future to the one who survives. I realized that love stories where one partner dies, like Titanic, are the greatest. The ones that we remember really well are the ones that end prematurely. But would these relationships have had a chance if they had lasted? Not necessarily, so it’s better that one of them died. I wanted to write about obsession, too. So, I put together these characters that would let me explore all of those ideas at once.
That said, it didn’t occur to me until later that this would have to cover a long time to show how grief spins out over a series of years. Doing that, I did think about Woolf. I also thought about Steve Almond, who said that all you have to do is put white space and then write the word “later,” and you’re done. You don’t have to do all of this prevaricating and dancing around about how time passes; you’ve got one word. That’s all you have to do. Because of that, I didn’t stress it too much. I simply put in little cues about how much time is passing.
KF: Another refrain that I saw in the piece is “my Corisande.” There’s a sense of ownership of the beloved. Could you speak to how people possess and are possessed by early love?
KC: The first chapter ends with Amelia saying, “You are not my Corisande” twice. She’s not just saying that the alive Corisande that she knew is gone, and the one that exists is this dead one that she doesn’t know, but also that she has an idea of who Corisande is and that Corisande’s existence is actually different from that idea. Her object of obsession does not really contain the whole person Corisande was or the ghost Corisande becomes. Instead, it’s just her idea. It’s so much easier to fall in love with an idea than it is to fall in love with a person. The ownership is about her wanting to hang onto her perception of this object of obsession as opposed to facing the reality that Corisande is dead and or that Corisande might have been a completely different creature than the one that was in Amelia’s head.
I think that there can’t be obsession without a sense of ownership, as if the thing that you’re obsessed with belongs to you, and it’s maybe a totally different object than what’s actually in the world. Like, my obsession with Chris Evans is about the Chris Evans that’s in my head, as opposed to the Chris Evans who is in his house right now. It’s a useful object, and it’s an object created not by me but by others to make me obsessed. But between normal people, as opposed to between a person and a celebrity, it’s super dangerous.
KF: Obsession is so much about the person who is obsessing. It can be a way of understanding oneself because the obsession can almost hold up a mirror to who you want to be. Throughout much of the book, Amelia is really using this object of obsession as a way to either try to understand herself or her place in the world or serve as an excuse to not engage.
KC: That last one. She doesn’t move on because she doesn’t want to move on because she wants to stay in this place where she was safe. And to be fair to Amelia, the world is really shitty to her. She’s an orphan. She has no ambitions at all. Her experience of life without this person to guide her was so shitty that I can’t be angry at her for wanting to latch onto someone who has more ambition and direction than she does, instead of finding it for herself, which is so hard.
I think that her obsession is indeed about her and what she’s missing out of life and how much easier it is to fixate on a person than it is to find that missing stuff in yourself, in the world, and to find that mélange of stuff that works for you, between yourself and the world. What was inspiring me was my own obsessions when I was in late high school. There was this one guy who I was just fixated on, and I don’t really know what it was about him or about me that caused this to happen. It might have been something about his unavailability or his intelligence or his sort of trajectory, but I don’t know that it says anything about my character that he was the one that I wanted. I don’t know that Amelia’s obsession with Corisande says much more about Amelia than that she wants to be safe, and rightly so.
KF: Amelia is looking for home throughout her life without really finding it.
KC: Everyone that I’ve talked to about this book has said that it’s about something different, which I think is amazing. My friend Jesse, who has grieved a lot in his life, thought that it was about grief. My friend Marissa, who has loved a lot in her life, thought it was about love. And my friend Chris, who is obsessed with Gertrude Stein, thought it was about language. For me, the center of it is home. That’s my triggering subject as a writer, and no matter what I do, whenever I look at the heart of my work, it always comes back to home. That doesn’t mean that the book is definitely about home and everyone should interpret it as such. But it does mean that for me, the very kernel of the book is, “How do you find a home in a world that has made you homeless?”
KF: That’s what I got out of it. But I also got that it was about grief and love and language. It contains all of that. I know that you review a lot of books and work with other people’s words quite a bit. How does closely reading others’ work affect you as a writer?
KC: It really doesn’t. I think that there are times when absorbing others’ words can harm the work. For example, when I was finishing a failed novel some years ago, the thing that kept me sane was watching the 1995 Pride and Prejudice again and again. In between drafting, I would just go and watch Lizzie and Darcy, and then I would go and draft some more. The book had absolutely nothing to do with Pride and Prejudice, but the language started to take on the character of Austen and be a little more ornate and explanatory, and people started overhearing each other’s conversations and things like that. It was the wrong influence for the book that I was writing, but the whole thing changed. There was this turning point where it became Austenian all of a sudden, but it was a science fiction novel.
Now, I read so many different kinds of things, so it’s hard for any one book to influence my writing process. But the other thing is, since my M.A., I’ve become so much more entrenched in my own words and my own aesthetic that it’s difficult to be swayed by others. I’m so much more sure of who I am as a writer that I’m not really afraid of letting other stuff in. Also, I had that experience with Austen, which showed me that I need to be more careful about what I let in all the way.
I love being a critic. I love writing book reviews, but it’s also almost an involuntary response, like when the doctor taps your knee. Whenever I read a book, I have 750 words to say about it. It’s less creative work for me than it is for other critics, maybe. It taps into a different part of my brain. It’s a different hemisphere.
KF: What are you working on now?
KC: I’m just finishing a collection of hybrid essays, each of which deals with film criticism, fiction, and memoir. For instance, I published an essay about seeing a dog and a girl on a bike and how The Sound of Music warps its true story. I’ve just finished that collection. Up next is a book of essays about bad movies, and I’m really excited about starting on that. I have a tattoo from Mystery Science Theater 3000. I’m a huge fan of bad movies and how they can show us what good art is. The main premise of the book is that bad art can show us, more easily than good art, what good art looks like.
Author photo by Barbara Manuel Potter.