Interview with MFA in Creative Writing Graduate Kiara Brinkman
JM: Why did you choose Goddard’s low-residency program?
KB: I’d taken a lot of writing workshops as an undergrad at Brown, and while that was great for me at the time, I wanted to have a different experience as a graduate student. At Goddard, I mainly worked one-on-one with my advisor, and I benefited from the intensity and continuity of that communication throughout a semester. And because low-residency programs tend to draw a more diverse group of students, during my time on campus, I was around writers of all ages and backgrounds, which was exciting.
JM: Has success changed the way you approach your work as a writer?
KB: It’s always nice to have a lot of years of hard work validated by the outside world. You spend so much time by yourself in a little office. It’s nice to be heard. It was exciting going on a book tour; this is what I have always wanted, my dream come true. The flipside is that I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself; now I need to keep writing and keep getting better. I need to appreciate the success but not get stuck in it.
JM: You took tremendous risks with this novel. The Washington Post says “no one could blame you for turning away…but if you can bear it, the treasures here are exquisite.” Why and how did you choose such a risky character, an Asperger's afflicted young boy who has lost his mother?
KB: I had this character’s voice in my head for a long time, before I even understood his condition. After college I worked in an after school program and one of our students had Asperger’s. That kind of gave me a framework for the voice. Usually what comes to me first is the character’s voice…once I have a few sentences I feel very comfortable with a character who is older, younger, or a different gender. For Sebby (Sebastian, the young narrator of the novel), the challenging thing was to convey complicated ideas in simple ways. I took the risks I did because the character inspired me to do that. I wanted to be true to him and his voice and tell the story in his way, yet I had to figure out a way to imply things so that the reader wouldn’t get frustrated.
Inhabiting this character for a couple of years did affect me personally. It was very intense. In the middle of a project I carry it around with me, even trying to experience the world as the character might. Writing this character turned up the volume on my own emotions. The world become brighter, more vivid, but could also be overwhelming. When I got stuck, I would take a break for a couple of weeks. My own brain needed a change. I got very attached to Sebby and had to write him into a place where I felt he would be safe, so it was important to end the book on a hopeful note.
JM: What was your path to the writer’s life? What keeps you coming back to the work?
KB: In trying to answer this question, I often end up telling my life story, which is not all that interesting, so I’ll try to be brief. I’ve always had a thing for words—how they sound and how they work together. I wrote weird little stories when I was a kid, and then, in high school, I tried journalism and completely burned out. I remember lots of tight deadlines and not liking what I was writing about or how I was writing. I felt like a hack. Then in college, I had the opportunity to take creative writing classes, and while I was finding it difficult to write my academic papers, writing stories came more easily for me. I was in a workshop almost every semester, and I knew I’d found what I wanted to do. The hard part was, and still is, sticking with it, and putting in the hours it takes to write and get better and just keep writing.
I don’t think writing is even a choice anymore. I write because when a story or a chapter comes together, I feel like I’ve suddenly arrived at a new place, a place where I didn’t even know I was going. I surprise myself. I communicate something that I don’t think I would be able to in any other way.
And, in my own life, I’m the kind of person who has trouble really enjoying and being in a given moment. Writing slows me down and forces me to be there, to fully experience every little thing. Of course, I also write with the hope that I’ll be able to create something that resonates with others and is helpful in some way.
JM: What books have most influenced you?
KB: I’ve read the first hundred pages of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man many, many times. I find Joyce’s writing so immediate and emotionally raw— it’s difficult to see above or around it. He so firmly places you in the character’s shoes that the narration becomes almost claustrophobic, the voice sort of becomes a part of you, something that you hear aloud in your head as you read. I also often go back to Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, particularly Benjy’s narration. The rhythm of Benjy’s voice is so powerful, and you can exist in this world where time runs together— there’s no past, present, future. And, I read a lot of contemporary fiction. I know this may seem like a bit of a contrast after just mentioning Faulkner, but I’m a big fan of minimalist writing. I love Amy Hempel, AM Homes, Selah Saterstrom.