Writing and Painting Through Pain: The Heartlands Interview with Katherine James, 1 of 3

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photo by Ian Schneider via Unsplash

How can we see the world in new ways?  In her debut novel, Can You See Anything Now?, (recently reviewed here on Heartlands), Katherine James uses her background in painting and the difficult passages in her life to weave a story of a healing town named Trinity and the people who live in it.  It’s a small town like many others with the familiar divisions between left and right.  But it’s also a story of people coming together and seeing the possibility for something more.

It’s a great new book and I was happy to be able to interview her recently.  We talked writing, painting, faith, and more.  In the third part of this interview we dig deeper into the book itself.

You’re writing a memoir that’s due out next spring.

Yeah, it’s kind of an intense one. Surprisingly, it wasn’t too hard to write. I guess I can kind of remove myself from situations, but about 4 1/2-5 years ago, our son had an heroin overdose.  He did live through it but it was one of those really bad ones…in a coma and all that.

The timing in our world right now, with the opiate addictions and everything, I just felt like it was time to sit down and write it out.  During that time, there was a lot that went on. My husband and I took in a lot of his friends and helped them out.  It was successful. We didn’t know what the heck we were doing. We had no clue. We weren’t a rehab. Everybody was clean by then, but, you know, struggling.  We talked to a lot of them about Christ, and we saw some lives change. We went through a couple of deaths, a couple in prison.  You get the whole smattering of everything. But it was tragic. So, the whole memoir is kind of peppered with the story of our son having the overdose, and going in and being at the hospital, and all that.

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Katherine James

I just finished reading your article about your experience with breast cancer…the “Being Pretty” post in The Other Journal. So, you’ve had a whole lot of ^%#* happen.

[laughs] I know. I’m really hoping we’re out of this. But, at this point, I’m just careful in looking around the next corner, terrified of what’s going to happen.  Yeah, we had that.  It looks like everything’s cool but then, two years or so, really quite miraculously, I caught it early enough. I just happened to feel a lump. It was one of those things where the doctor said I saved my life. So yeah, that was a tough, little journey.

After the tragedy of our son, I could almost laugh the whole way through, honestly.  I was kind of like, “This is nothing.” So, I lose my chest. Who cares about that? [laughs]

Having told me the story of your son’s experience, I can see how that informed the book.  With all this going on, has writing become more important? Or has it assumed a different place within your life…a different size?

No, it has always been there, honestly.  I’m probably good at two things and two things only, really.  I can draw and paint. And I can write. That’s about it.

You don’t want to put me in an office—not because I’d hate it, but because every organized thing, I would just make it disorganized. So, that’s about all I have.

When I was painting, I always had this thing in the back of my mind where I’d rather be writing. With painting and writing, when that’s what you are doing, I feel like that’s the only way I can really focus on anything. You can always go back and perfect it, over and over again. Rework perfection.

With painting, it’s: ‘Quit trying to cover up your messes.’ It’s a whole different thing. That’s why I work with oil, because it all mixes together a little bit. I don’t know if you’ve ever painted…

No, I learned a whole lot about painting from your book.

So, with oil, it all mushes together, which is wonderful. The oil mixes with the oil and you can make this beautiful color that’s nice and smooth. You’re making new colors on the canvas as you paint. In writing, it would almost be as though your sentences were overlapping on each other.  And when you wrote a new sentence, the other sentence would have to somehow mesh with the one before.

So, the memoir is done ? Well, except maybe for the title. [laughs]

[laughs] Yeah, it’s finished.  Honestly, I’ve never written a book that’s non-fiction before. I mean, I’ve written other novels that I just thought were crummy. I never really did much with them, but it was good to write.  I think you do have to write a couple of book-like things before you can narrow in, and say, “Hey, I’m actually going to pursue this one.”

416HGA6nSHL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Can you talk about the personal struggle of writing a memoir?  What was it like to go through that, reliving some of those painful parts of life and joyous parts?

Memoir is a beast for me only because it’s true; I can’t just make things up. It was really hard to have something linear, so that it made sense.  I had too much material.  I had to decide what to put in there and leave out.  So, that was really difficult.

As far as actually writing the thing, surprisingly, I disconnected myself from it.  It wasn’t particularly hard for me to do. However, I wanted my son to vet it, and also my husband. My son read the first two chapters and then he came in and said, “It’s really well-written, but I just can’t keep going on.”  It didn’t hurt him, he just said, “It really hurts me that I hurt you that I hurt you so much.”  Then, he apologized again that he’d ever done that to us. So, that was just really sweet.  Then, my husband felt the same way.  After reading the first few chapters, he had to just gave it back.

Segment 2 of the interview: “Free to Use Dangling Participles.”

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5 thoughts on “Writing and Painting Through Pain: The Heartlands Interview with Katherine James, 1 of 3

  1. Pingback: Finding God in a Small Town: A Review of Can You See Anything Now? | Heartlands

  2. Pingback: Free to Use Dangling Participles: The Heartlands Interview with Katherine James, 2 of 3 | Heartlands

  3. Pingback: A God’s-Eye View: The Heartlands Interview with Katherine James, 3 of 3 | Heartlands

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