Kathleen Wheaton has traveled the world as a journalist and travel writer, experiencing first hand being a cultural outsider. Her book Aliens and Other Stories is a loosely-linked collection of stories that is above all about people in exile – from their native countries, their families, their objects of desire. She spoke with Our Town about her writing process, her work as the Assistant Editor of Narrative Magazine and why there’s no shame in being a short story writer.
Our Town Your undergraduate degree is in Creative Writing. Do you think a formal education in writing is necessary?
Kathleen Wheaton What was helpful in my case, and in many cases I imagine, was that my college creative writing class was the first place I'd met an actual, live writer. You get a sense of what that life is like, even if you're relatively successful--the solitude, rejection, and worry about money. If it still looks good to you, then by all means proceed. But your actual education as a writer--reading constantly, writing and then rewriting--will be on your own time and take many more years.
OT Any journalistic habits that you had to unlearn or work against when writing fiction?
KW Maybe because I started out as a fiction writer, I feel that journalism only improved my writing: I learned to be clear, specific, and economical. Beginning writers often confuse being cryptic with subtlety. And nothing should be in there just because it sounds pretty.
OT What inspired your story collection?
KW I went to Argentina in 1987 because I had been hired to put together a travel book on Buenos Aires. The military dictatorship had ended a few years earlier and it seemed that the whole city was suffering slightly from PTSD. I'd be sitting in a cafe talking to a contributor about maps or photos, and they'd mention that they'd been arrested during the dirty war, or that someone close to them was a desaparecido, or that they'd spent some time in exile. And then they'd go back to talking about the guidebook--everyone I met was really excited about the idea that tourists might want to come there. But those blurted-out confessions haunted me, and eventually became the germ of several of the stories in Aliens.
OT How did you realize you were writing towards a collection?
KW We moved to Washington, DC after 10 years in Latin America, and I felt a bit like an immigrant myself at that point. So I began writing more stories, with some of the same characters, about the experience of adapting to life in the US.
OT How do the stories relate?
KW All of them are about people living in some type of exile, but the collection centers around a character named Gabriel Baum, an Argentine journalist who disappears during the dictatorship. Gabriel himself appears briefly in the book, but several of the stories have as protagonists his wife, his children, his parents, his friends.
OT What’s your writing process like and how does it differ when you’re writing as a journalist vs as a fiction writer?
KW Not long after we moved to DC I started writing for a bimonthly magazine, which meant that if I was diligent I could spend a month working on a nonfiction piece and then have a month free to work on a short story. Switching back and forth made each kind of writing seem like a vacation from the other, at least for the first few minutes. What has struck me is that the writing process isn't all that different--you assemble the details and the story emerges from them. What's different about journalism is that you don't have to work so hard to make it sound true. I can't understand journalists who make things up, who make up quotes. People say the most extraordinary things in real life.
OT What fiction writers have influenced you?
KW Alice Munro, though now she's a Nobel that seems like saying you once worked at McDonald's with Scarlett Johanssen. Another amazing Canadian short story writer, Mavis Gallant. Barbara Pym, whose books make me laugh even after several re-readings. Anthony Powell, whose 12-volume novel is full of funny scenes but the overall effect somehow moves me to tears.
OT You’re an assistant editor for Narrative. Are lit mag just as important for writers as always?
KW Absolutely. For short story writers, it seems the only way to publish a book is to publish most or all of the stories in magazines first. I think for a novelist, too--sections of the book ought to be able to stand alone. If not, you probably need to prune and clarify. But I think it's important to emphasize that writers should also read and subscribe to literary magazines--not just try to get published in them. Otherwise it's like expecting to be invited to dinner all the time but never having anyone over.
OT Initially online lit mags were less respected than paper lit mags. Is that changing?
KW Most fiction writers are the opposite of early adopters, maybe because they spend so much time alone, thinking about their childhood and youth. So it makes sense that literature would be even slower than the Catholic Church to take the Internet seriously. Tom Jenks and Carol Edgarian, the founders of Narrative, were brilliant to set up in the Bay Area, where they could make a magazine that not only has the highest literary standards but is visually beautiful. They single-handedly (or double-handedly) changed the idea that the Internet is for the unedited.
OT What are you working on next?
KW A collection of stories. Thanks to Alice Munro, there is less shame in not writing a novel.
Follow Kathleen Wheaton on Twitter.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for sites like Pop Matters and
afterellen.com Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," was called “poetic and heartrending” by ALA Booklist. Sarah is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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