The Bookshelf: Memoirist Katrina Kenison's 'Moments of Seeing'

Nov 25, 2016

The Bookshelf from NHPR is New Hampshire Public Radio's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State.  All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

This week, The Bookshelf features Peterborough, New Hampshire author and editor Katrina Kenison. Her new memoir is collection of essays that show one woman’s attempt to tune out the clutter and focus on what really matters in life: family, friends, love, kindness, and living with a sense of awareness. Katrina Kenison edited the popular Best American Short Stories anthology for 16 years, and is the author of three other books, including The Gift of an Ordinary Day.  Her new memoir is called Moments of SeeingScroll down to read Katrina Kenison's top five reading recommendations and read the transcript of her conversation with Peter Biello. 

Katrina Kenison's Top Five Reading Recommendations:

1.   Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. "Is there a perfect American book?  I would nominate E.B. White’s timeless children’s story, which of course is meant not just for children but for anyone who has ever offered or received the priceless gift of friendship. It is for anyone who has ever feared or mourned the prospect of their own death – which is to say it is for all of us, at every age we’ve ever been.  For me, the simplicity of White’s prose, combined with the ever-present threat of Wilbur the pig’s impending doom, serve as something of a master-class in the power of understatement. There is such whimsy and dry humor, such wisdom and depth, and such awareness of mortality in this quietly unassuming masterpiece, that I can only wonder if E. B. White was fully cognizant of what a wonder of a book he was creating. To read Charlotte’s Web as a child is to learn a great deal about what it means be, and to lose, a friend.  To return to it as an adult is to find oneself in awe of the seemingly inevitable placement of every word in every sentence, and of the magical, ineffable quality of White’s storytelling.  I can’t really explain the tender, abiding affection I feel for this novel, but its themes are the very ones I find myself thinking about every day: friendship, joy and grief, adventure and miracle, life and death, pleasure and pain, the passage of time."

2.   To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. "When I first read To the Lighthouse as a college student, I found myself having to stop midway through, tears streaming down my face, as I tried to absorb the shock of Mrs. Ramsay’s sudden death. Never before or since have I been so overcome by a work of fiction.  I was in love not only with a character who had just vanished with a turn of the page, but even more with the demanding, exceptionally sensitive consciousness of her creator.  The interiority of Woolf’s prose, so unlike anything I’d yet encountered in my brief lifetime of reading, shook me awake and showed me that a work of fiction could literally transform the way I view the world. Reading it changed my life.  Within the pages of this radiant, challenging, brilliant novel, I also discovered the lines that would form something of a coda to my own life and future writing:  'What is the meaning of life? That was all—a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with the years, the great revelation never had come.  The great revelation perhaps never did come.  Instead, there were daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark. . .'"

3.   So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell. "William Maxwell’s miniature masterpiece (it’s just 135 pages long) is one of those rare books that not only stays with you but haunts you; I suspect it’s lodged in my own heart for life.  Told from the point of view of an elderly man still suffering guilt about snubbing a childhood friend who had suffered a terrible trauma, the story is sad, primal, and almost unbearably revealing of its author’s struggles to come to terms with his past.  For those of us who are still susceptible to our own childhoods and the wounds we inflicted, it cuts right to the bone. The writing is so spare, so unassuming, so determinedly transparent, that I experience this novel with the strangely unnerving sense that I’m actually living the story rather than reading it. Which perhaps explains why the pain of it would be overwhelming were it not for the wise and profoundly sympathetic sensibility of Maxwell himself, invisibly mediating and healing my wounds along with his own."

4.   Light Years by James Salter. "Years ago, when I was first working as an editor in New York in my twenties, a publishing colleague sent me a copy of Light Years, just out in paperback for the first time from North Point Press.  'Your kind of book,' he scribbled in the note he included in the envelope.  Little did he know he’d given me the novel that would become my touchstone.  Every few years for over half my life I’ve returned to this elegiac, lyrical, stunningly sensual tale of a fairy-tale marriage and its gradual, careless dissolution.  Re-reading Light Years is like sitting down with an old friend I haven’t seen for a while – always, there are surprises; some things are the same, many others are startlingly different.  The book, of course, doesn’t change.  But I do.  And so with each reading I’m touched and moved and pained and satisfied in an altogether different way.  Such is the mysterious power of a book that endures, informs, and shapes the life of its reader."

5.   Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett. "To call the relationship between Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealy a 'friendship' is to fail to recognize the depth of passion possible between two women who are not romantic partners yet who are drawn to one another with a searing, once-in-a-lifetime fierceness more powerful than many a sexual love affair.  This intimate, eloquent memoir is a eulogy for a brilliant young woman who died too soon, but it is much more than that.  It is also a tragic, brutally honest book about what it means to love a person we cannot save.  As someone who has often found myself drawn into the role of rescuer, I find Ann’s account of this complex, joyful, and ultimately tragic relationship to be a compelling cautionary tale, at once marvelous and medicinal."

Tell us about how you started writing these essays.

I had a memoir that was just about to come out – this was in 2009 – and I had really been holed up in my house for about the last year and a half writing a book I wasn’t at all sure anyone would want to read. I was aware in a way I never had been before that that chapter of life that feels like it’s going to go on forever, which is parents and children all living together under one roof, actually does come to an end. And for me that profound awareness arrived along with my son’s first application to college, and it just hit me: he’ll be gone. Life is not ever going to be the same. 

So I had this desire to just hold on to every precious moment, and at the same time I knew that my job as a mother was to start letting go, and writing that book, The Gift of an Ordinary Day, was my way to kind of do both at once. It was such a personal book that I had some hesitation about releasing it into the world. I even wrote it pretending none would actually read it, which is the way I could put a lot of the personal and intimate emotion down on the page.

But now I had to send it out there, and I had a very young New York publicist, and I was quite aware that he had not read my book and he probably never would read my book, and his advice to me was I needed a platform, and so to go home and start a website and start a blog. And this was 2009. I didn’t know what a blog was. I had never seen one.

I did what any mom of a teenager would do. I went home and I asked my son, and he introduced me to the blogosphere which was still nascent at that point, and he designed a little website for me and I wrote my first post. And he showed me how to cut it and paste it and hit publish, and I just kind of thought “well, here goes nothing. I’m sending it out there, who will ever know that it exists?”

And how long did it take for the blog to get any type of traction?

About a week.

Really?

Yes. It felt like a miracle to me, because I had no idea how people would find their way to me. But the book was out on bookstore tables, and people would pick it up, come home, read a few pages, perhaps resonate with what I was writing, Google me, and be led to this brand new website. 

So really within a few days I was starting to get letters, mostly from other moms who were at the same stage that I was, and they would say things like, “I feel like if you lived next door to me you and I would be friends, and we would have coffee and talk about how hard it is to hold on and let go.”

What started as this open-ended homework assignment where I was thinking, “How long do I have to keep this thing going?” turned into this on-going conversation with people not only all over the country, but all over the world.

And a lot of these posts focus on some kind of mindfulness, whether it’s being aware at home, or the mindfulness inherent in yoga, which you practice. And it seemed to me like the act of writing turned into another act of mindfulness, another attempt to be aware of just the small things in life. Did the writing these blog posts turn into that for you?

Absolutely. And I certainly could have stopped. The book came out and life moved on, and what I realized was that I had come not only to look forward to but perhaps even to need that time out every week to sit in my kitchen, take time out of the business of living to try to make sense of life, and that’s what the writing became for me. And there were no deadlines other than the ones I imposed on myself. And there were no subjects other than whatever I happened to be grappling with, struggling with, or grateful for in the moment.  So it’s a collection of moments.

Did you hear anything from your readers that surprised you?  An effect that your writing had that you didn’t expect it would have?

Probably the very simple fact that we tend to assume that we are the only ones feeling this way – the only ones having a hard time. The only ones with invisible aches and pains. The only ones who are feeling conflicted about children growing up and leaving home, or marriages, entering new chapters, or new wrinkles appearing. And what the writing did for me was connect what felt like my own personal experience to what turned out to be quite universal, and the realization that we are so much more alike than different.  That the surface details of our lives are going to be unique, of course, to us, but that there’s always a soul story underneath the surface story, and that’s where we connect.

Let’s talk a little bit about your time as editor of The Best American Short Stories seriesYou did this for 16 years.  That’s for listeners that aren’t familiar, that’s 20 short stories chosen by guest editor from a smaller pool that you create having read thousands a year.  How many of thousands of stories do you think you’ve read over the course of the 16 years you did this job?

I’ll give you the numbers and you do the math. I would read about 2,000 short stories a year, and I did this job for 16 years, so it was a lot of short stories. I did not read every short story all the way through. I got pretty good at knowing within a few pages [that] if the voice just isn’t there, then chances are this isn’t going to be a contender for the best of the year. But I tried to give every story that I read a good, fair chance. 

Well, you have read all or part of more short stories than anybody else I think I’ve ever met.

And I did also read – because I did The Best American Short Stories of the century with John Updike – I went back and found all the volumes beginning with the first one in 1915 right up through the end of the twentieth century. Those stories I did read every single story all the way through because they had all made it into a volume of The Best American Short Stories. John Updike and I had the challenge of narrowing that down to choose the best of the century, and so I owed those stories a good, careful reading. 

So tell us from your perspective, what makes a good short story?

Martha Foley, who was the second editor, she was asked that question and her curt answer was, “A good short story is one that’s not too long and gives the reader the sense of having undergone an experience.”  So I would certainly agree with that [and] probably also add that there’s a sense of urgency, or even necessity, when you read a really good short story. That it’s bringing you some news of the human condition that you need to have, that you need to know in order to grow or deepen in empathy, or understand something that was beyond your grasp before.  So I think of it as kind of urgent news of the human condition.

Was there one or maybe several short stories in your years of reading these still stands out to you?  You still really remember it?

I think I would say a story by Amy Bloom called “Love is Not a Pie.” And it was in a little tiny feminist magazine. I had never heard of Amy Bloom. She was someone I helped bring to a much wider audience by featuring her in Best American Short Stories, and it was about a very complicated love relationship as observed by a child.  And the story just blew me away.  And it was so exciting and so much fun to find.

It’s easy to find a good short story in The New Yorker or The Atlantic, but to find one hidden in an unlikely magazine that might have a circulation of a few hundred or a thousand, that’s what made that job so exciting and wonderful all those years, and that’s a story that went on to become kind of a classic of the genre.

Did that make it into the final cut into one of the anthologies?

Oh yeah.

Was there ever a story… you call from the 2000 you read, what, 100 for the guest editor?

120.

Was there ever a story in the 120 where you think, “I hope this gets in,” and then it doesn’t?

Of course.

Can you name one of those?

No, I can’t name one of those. But that would come up year after year and different guest editors had different ways of working, and some of them really wanted to get right into the trench and tussle over the stories.

Tussle with you? Discuss?

Yeah, discuss. And that was always so much fun, because we could really debate the merits of a particular story and the balance of the collection. And those would be collaborative efforts, and other guest editors wanted to go away and read and pick and call me with the results and be done with it, and either way was fine.

Can you give me some examples of the guest editors that fall in either category?  Who were some of the collaborative authors?

Ann Patchett was the final guest editor I had the pleasure to work with. The two of us just hit it off at the very beginning, and so enjoyed the process of reading together, and getting to know each other’s tastes, and sharing our thoughts about the short stories. It was a wonderful way to end. And John Updike with his mammoth projects that we co-edited together.  He often asked me my thoughts. He had narrowed it down to two stories by Bernard Malamud, and I got a little postcard in the mail from him which he would type on his old Underwood typewriter. And it said, “Dear Ms. K.  I would love to know which of the Bernard Malamud stories you prefer and why.” And only my husband would know I would take that as quite a literary assignment.  John Updike wants to know my thoughts? So I’m going to go read those stories very carefully and spend a good day or two getting straight in my own mind which one I prefer.

I’m picturing your office now as just full of ephemera – notes from people like John Updike and Ann Patchett and Amy Bloom and all these literary folks that people know so well. Personal notes from them to you.

I have a lot of boxes.

So what about from the other column?  The authors who would rather just say, “Give me the 120. I’ll pick them and let you know”?

Garrison Keillor just had a very clear sense of how he wanted to do it and he chose wonderful stories. And we worked really well together. But he was not so interested. Jane Smiley was not so interested in what I had to think, and it was really fine. My job as the series editor was to meet the guest editor wherever they were, and every one of them brought a very particular taste and sensibility to this series, which is what kept it and keeps it so lively year after year. It’s never about one person’s tastes or predilections.

I discovered the series while you were the editor, when I was in high school, and I think the first one that I encountered was guest edited by Barbara Kingsolver. She was the editor that year, and the stories were just great. When I was done with my required reading for school, that was what I was flipping through, thinking, “This is great stuff. Why aren’t we assigned this?”

That’s exactly right.  There are so many authors I heard from over the years, and one of the great perks of the job was getting to contact authors who had been chosen and let them know that they were going to have a story in the Best American Short Stories, and invariably those authors would say, “I’ve been reading this series ever since I was in high school, and it’s always been a dream of mine to have a story included.”  So it’s wonderful to be the barer of happy news.

I didn’t realize that you were the one who got to tell them that.  Are there any other reactions that just really stick in your mind?  Author reactions?

John Updike my very first year that I was serving in this role as series editor, and I was working with Alice Adams, and there is a beautiful John Updike story called “A Sandstone Farmhouse.” Another one of my all-time favorites. And he had just won the Pulitzer Prize weeks before, and I, as the new editor of the series, now had to contact by phone Mr. Updike and let him know his story had been chosen. And his graciousness, it just melted me. He said, “I haven’t been in for quite some time, and this is such an honor. I was beginning to worry that I might never have a story in the Best American Short Stories again.”  So he was completely humbled and delighted, and nothing jaded about his response at all.

Just glad to think, "I still got it!"

“I still got it.” I think he was the only author that had the distinction of having his first short story in the 1950s, and was included every decade right up until his death.  So that’s a good long run.