Let’s not put Katherine James’s debut novel, Can You See Anything Now?, (recently reviewed here on Heartlands), into a box called Christian fiction. She is a Christian and there are strong Christian themes in the book, but this is not an Amish romance. James tackles difficult themes like suicide, cutting, and substance abuse with vivid, fully-fleshed out characters.
In the first segment of this interview we talked about her life and her upcoming memoir. Here we explore the freedom to write and following your instincts.
How long have you been living with this book?
Quite awhile. It’s one of those things where it’s in your head and you write notes and you leave it alone for a while. Actually, the first draft, (it was a messy draft), was before everything happened with our son. So, it would probably be six to seven years ago. Then, I just let it sit while we struggled through that whole time. Interestingly, it seems like our struggles with our son informed the book, but the book was written before everything happened with our son.
Wow, that’s extraordinary. Did you feel that the book was preparing you, in some way, for what happened?
Oh, that’s a really good question. It probably was in that, on a subconscious level, these were the sorts of things that were in my head. Probably, because, by that time, we did have a lot of kids around our house that were struggling. We met some girls through our daughter. Our kids are all very close to my husband. So, she would bring strays over to the house and sit them down in our living room with my husband and say, “Alright, you need to talk to my Dad.” Then she’d sit them down and she’d leave to go to do something. So, my husband Rick would just be there with this girl and eventually they talk. And I would come in and we’d talk together. So, it was good. Kids stayed here a lot. Probably because we let them smoke. We were so stupid in a lot of ways.
Tell me a little bit about art and perspective and how that informed this book, because it’s so much a part of the book. You start with that really striking image in the beginning of Margie, one of the main characters, with her head above water following a suicide attempt. You play with that perspective and then you keep shifting each chapter to different characters. How does your visual art sense play into constructing the book?
Very intensely. It’s such a part of it. I imagine the physical feel of things. I think the shape of my memory about the physicality of things, including what things look like is very permanent and perceptive. So I can remember things that way. Verbally, I remember very little. Even when I read. I’m a very slow, slow reader. Although I can stall on sentences and paragraphs and just be blown away, and very much appreciate excellent writing, that doesn’t mean that I remember a whole lot.
For some reason, I can remember physical environment, images. And then, words would come out of those images. I always think of Faulkner, because I think that I’ve read somewhere that he started with images. I could really connect to that.
When I started to write, the most freeing things that anybody told me, (I think it was one of my professors when I was getting my MFA), was that you can do anything you want with fiction. I was kind of blown away by that. And I wasn’t sure. “What do you mean ‘anything I want’?”
“Any. thing. you want.”
And I go, “No way! I can have dangling participles? Which, I don’t know what those are, but I can have them? I don’t have to worry even about sentence structure if it sounds right?” It was so freeing and after that is really when I hit the page. I felt the freedom to keep going because my limitations really did tend to be not really knowing so much.
I don’t think that I’d be a very good composition teacher. I could definitely teach poetry or fiction and I could teach those things well. But when it comes to the mechanics of writing—the Chicago Manual style—I would just rip that up because it would really mess with my brain. So, that one statement was really powerful to me. It gave me this freedom to keep going. Kind of like the Cubist movement maybe.
I’ve always heard that about writing: You learn all the rules so that you can break them.
[laughs] I never learned all the rules. I learned to break them immediately. That’s why my poetry was so easy. Sure, I knew how to write a sonnet and all of that, but free verse was big when I really started writing poetry in grade school. It was really like, “Oh, I really can do anything I want”—I thought that was okay with poetry. But I didn’t know that with fiction that was true, too. It can carry over into narrative nonfiction—at least these days it can.
Did you just feel that you were just following your instincts as you moved from chapter to chapter in this book?
Yes. Every writer is so different, but, for me, usually I’ll write the first three chapters or so. The characters begin to take shape and the environment From there, I start to have a sense of where I’m headed. Often I will go all the way to the back, to the last page, and I’ll write it. I’ll write exactly where I want it to end. Then I start back where I was before and I know exactly the ending that I want to get to. So that’s the goal. I can go anywhere in the middle but I know that’s where I want to end up.
It’s interesting how writers write. I’ve heard that John Irving actually starts at the end and then writes towards the beginning. I imagine if you could do that your plot would be phenomenal.
Of course, there are plenty of writers who do the outline or put little stick-up notes all over their desks, or Scrivner on the computer. I’ve tried that, but just doesn’t seem to work as well with me.
Segment 3 of the interview: “A God’s-Eye View”.