[Interview] Kerala Goodkin

Kerala Goodkin holds a B.A. in Hispanic Studies from Brown University.

In 2001, she co-founded the nonprofit Glimpse Foundation and currently serves as editor-in-chief. She has traveled extensively and lived in Bolivia for six months, where she worked as a reporter for The Bolivian Times.

In addition to her work with The Glimpse Foundation, Kerala has been a contributing editor to National Geographic Traveller On Campus and currently serves as translator and public relations coordinator for the Committee of Immigrants in Action. She recently won first place in the Elixir Inaugural Fiction Contest (2004) for her first novel, How Things Break, which was subsequently published by Elixir Press in June of this year.

Kerala Goodkin spoke about her work with The Glimpse Foundation, her own writing, and her plans for the future.

What is The Glimpse Foundation?

The mission of Glimpse is to foster cross-cultural understanding, particularly between the United States and the rest of the world, by providing platforms for young adults to share their experiences living abroad. We run a website and a print magazine, Glimpse Quarterly.

In the United States, our main means of knowing about the rest of the world is through international news - where we hear mostly about death tolls and disasters, and travel magazines - where we hear about great restaurants and tourist hotspots. But few platforms give us a glimpse into the daily lives of people in other countries, hence the name.

At Glimpse, we believe that sharing these daily realities is an effective way to make Americans care about the rest of the world. It makes the world personal. That’s where I think the real power of writing lies: making things personal. This is where hatred, judgment, and prejudice begin to break down.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Before I could write myself, I used to dictate stories to my father, who would type them up for me on our family typewriter. When I was six years old, I told my parents that when I grew up, I either wanted to be a writer or "one of those people who pushes the buttons on cash registers."

When I started working in the food service industry at age 17, cash register buttons quickly lost their magical appeal. I bartend now, so I guess I'm still pushing cash register buttons, but I aim to make writing my long-term career.

As a writer, what would you say are your main concerns?

Mainly, I just like telling stories. I think stories are one of the most effective ways to bridge divides and truly communicate with people. I don't have any illusions about changing the world, but I really hope that through my writing, I can at least help broaden my readers' perspectives on the world.

Who would you say has influenced you the most?

My parents. They have always encouraged my writing and set examples for me with their own voracious appetite for books.

How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?

Though my parents have inspired me in countless ways, I always joked with them that they gave me the worst thing a writer could have: a happy childhood. But what fascinates me about writing is that stories can arise from the most mundane experiences.

I don't foresee ever writing epic novels. I like to focus on the subtler nuances of human character, experience, and relationships. I have always been the type of person who prefers listening to talking. I enjoy taking public transportation and sitting in public places just to watch people and imagine what kinds of stories they are carrying around.

What would you say are the biggest challenges that you face as a writer?

Well, my primary concern is that people don't read much anymore. Novels require time and patience, and in our culture of instant gratification, more and more people prefer TV, Internet browsing, and video games to reading.

Growing up, I was only allowed to watch a half-hour of TV a week, and it's one of the best things my parents ever did for me. I prefer curling up with a book almost any day of the week. But I would say the majority of my friends don't incorporate reading into their daily lives.

How do you deal with these?

I'm on a personal mission to get people reading again. But it's easier said than done. If you didn't read for pleasure growing up, it's hard to start now. People these days are so used to controlling their modes of entertainment with the click of a button. I think they find the task of reading an entire book from start to finish almost daunting.

What is How Things Break about?

How Things Break is about that strange time in our lives when we suddenly find ourselves in adulthood and don't quite know what to do with ourselves. Or what some people call a quarter-life crisis.

The book is set in northern Michigan, where my grandparents live. The main character, Nat, is caught between two conflicting desires: to settle down and to escape. As the world around her begins to crumble, mimicking the slow deterioration of the house she illegally occupies, she explores the boundaries of her relationships, her sexuality, and the small town she lives in.

The cast of characters includes a handicapped father who lost both his legs when his wife backed a Buick into him; an eccentric grandmother who steals blueberries; a neighbor whose life mission is to get every hole in one on the town's mini-golf course; a 400-pound blind mother; a brother obsessed with rock-collecting; and a moody boyfriend who fishes using marshmallows for bait.

How long did it take you to write the novel?

Part of the novel was my thesis in college. I was determined not to give up on it - mainly because I had become somewhat attached to the eccentric cast of characters and wanted to see where they would end up.

The problem was, after graduating, I barely had any time. I was trying to get my start-up nonprofit off the ground and was also bartending a few nights a week to make rent. But on the three or four evenings a week that I had free, I made myself sit down for an hour and write.

I had a first draft done within a year of graduating and within the next six months, after passing the novel around to various old college professors and friends and family, I had what I could call a final draft.

Which aspects of the work did you find most difficult?

One aspect I rarely hear novelists talk about is the simple task of keeping track of what you've written! Writing, of course, is much slower than reading, and you simply forget the details you incorporated into previous chapters.

When I read through the first draft, I found I was constantly contradicting myself. First, my narrator had blue eyes, then hazel, then brown, etc.!

Probably the hardest thing for me was being patient and maintaining faith that the novel would come together in the end.

I don't believe in outlines. If I try to conform fiction to an outline, I find it comes across as very forced. I like the element of discovery involved in just letting the novel take its course. But then of course the danger is that you end up with a totally haphazard story.

Which did you enjoy most?

I loved my characters! I really felt a profound sense of loss when I finished the first draft. Especially the main character, Nat — she is someone I would like to meet some day.

How did the novel get published?

Once I had a final draft, I didn't really know what to do with it. One of my old professors advised me to submit it to as many novel contests as I could find. She thought I had a good chance of winning one, and said it would be an easy way to break into the publishing world. So I sent it off to about 25 contests.

Months later, I got a call from Elixir Press telling me I had won the Elixir Press Inaugural Fiction Award. The timing was pretty funny, actually. I was in between bartending jobs, and funds were tight at my nonprofit: my coworker and I hadn't been able to pay ourselves for months. I was flat broke. I was preparing to ask my landlord for an extension on rent, and I got this call from Elixir Press. The prize was $3,000 and publication.

I had to ask them if there was any way I could get the cash prize before the first of the next month! But winning was worth so much more than the money, of course. For years and years, I had said I wanted to be a professional writer, and now it was finally happening.

What sets the novel apart from the other things you've written?

Well, it was my first crack at a novel, unless you want to count a 40-page story I wrote in fifth grade called "The Babysitter of Doom." Actually, I co-wrote that with my babysitter.

I've written a lot of short stories and lately have gotten into short creative non-fiction pieces, but How Things Break was the first opportunity I had to really take my time with a story and let it evolve naturally. Sometimes the tendency with short pieces is to forge ahead to some kind of pre-determined conclusion. After all, you don't have much time to make your point.

In what way is it similar?

Though I deal with serious issues, I like to approach them in humorous ways that everyone can relate to. One of my pet peeves is writers who take themselves too seriously. Though I do believe in the power of the written word to broaden people's consciousness and effect social change, when all is said and done, I'm just telling a good story. Of course, this doesn't mean writing always has to be funny, but it's important for us as writers to keep our work in perspective and maintain a sense of humour.

Which themes will you be exploring in is your next book?

I'm about a quarter-way through the first draft of my next book, whose tentative title is Diary of Spectacular Roadkill. It takes place in Providence, Rhode Island and draws on my relationship with my boyfriend, which is interracial. The book will raise a lot of questions about the state of race relations in this country, but I don't plan on preaching anything. Again, I just want to tell a good story.

Possibly related books:


Related article:

Kerala Goodkin & Dave Francois, National Geographic Weekend Radio, June 14, 2008.


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