Kim Barnes is the author of In the Kingdom of Men, named a best book of 2012 by San Francisco Chronicle, The Seattle Times, and The Oregonian, and long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. She is a recipient of the PEN/Jerard Award in nonfiction for her first memoir, In the Wilderness, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work has appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The New York Times, WSJ online, The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, Oprah, Good Housekeeping, Fourth Genre, and the Pushcart Prize anthology.
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Erin Regan. Of the process she said, “I love Kim Barnes’ work. I first read her memoir, In the Wilderness, and felt an instant and enduring personal connection. I was so excited to ask her more about her experiences as a woman, a writer, and a lover of nature.” In this interview, she discusses her relationship with her home state of Idaho, the importance of writing about women’s lives, and the power of storytelling.
Superstition Review: In your memoir In the Wilderness, memory is intimately connected to the landscape of northern Idaho, where you grew up. You write about returning to Reeds Creek after the forest had been slashed, recalling, “I felt an overwhelming sadness—not just because of the creek, but because of the flood of memories and feelings that swept over me.” What role does geography and one’s sense of place play in writing, particularly in writing a memoir?
Kim Barnes: Like most things, the role that geography, landscape, cityscape—that “sense of place” that you refer to—plays in the work of an author is a matter of individual aesthetic sensibility as well as personal, familial, and cultural mythology. Just because a poet is raised in the rural West, for example, doesn't necessarily mean that she will concern herself with that place or that her writings will be informed by a particular geography.
Perhaps because my family’s livelihood (sharecroppers, marginal farmers, loggers) has been dependent on the land for some many generations, “place” is tied to every other aspect of my story, including survival. My Oklahoma ancestors could have been written right into a Steinbeck story: if the crops failed, so did they. My father’s job depended on not only finding harvestable timber but also the weather: in spring thaw, he couldn’t work because the forest was unworkable, which was also the case when summer wildfires threatened or winter temperatures dropped to 40 below.
It’s often said that nostalgia is for a time, not a place, but when your stories are so intimately connected to and dependent upon the landscape, it becomes impossible to separate them in memory.
SR: I love how you focus on the struggles of women in the 1960s rural West such as with In the Wilderness, where you write, “alongside this story is the quieter story of the women, who sometimes endured but more often did not, twice betrayed, first by the land and then by the men who worked it.” Why is it so important to tell the story of these women?
KB: Well, the easiest answer is simply to say that’s it’s because the stories of the women were never told. If you have no story, you have no history, no identity, no agency. You are invisible. It’s as though the women didn’t exist at all. When I first wrote In the Wilderness, I very intentionally set out to observe and record what stories I remembered about the women in my family, church, and community, and I wasn’t surprised at how little information I was able to gather with any certainty. The stories I do relate are ones that I pieced together from memory, from the whispered conversations I overheard between my mother and other women, and from my sense of narratival logic. Writing memoir isn’t about what you remember but why you remember what you do. The truest tension in literary memoir is that struggle with memory—to try and make sense of it.
The stories of men are often large and dramatic. It was relatively easy to record my father’s story (on the surface, anyway) because the “episodes” that define his personal history have been spoken and repeated and codified.
SR: In “That Delicate Membrane, the Heart,” your essay published in The New York Times, you describe the reconciliation with your father and his support of your first memoir In the Wilderness. What did that support mean to you as you got ready to publish your first book?
KB: I can’t say that I felt that support as I readied to publish my first book, but there was a very specific moment when that changed. I had finished the manuscript, sent it to my editor, who was very pleased and said, “We’re putting it into production.” I told him to wait, that I wanted to send it to my parents first. I had no plans to change anything, but I felt I needed to let them see it before it went out into the larger world. My mother read it first. When she called, she was crying. She felt she had failed to protect me and apologized for not intervening between me and my father. I reminded her that she and my father were part of the reason why I had the life that I did, that I was happy, and much of that was because of the love they had shown me and their belief in me. And then she began to cry again, but this time it was for her own lost self—that girl who had married at sixteen, who became invisible in the face of my father’s dominance and the church’s harsh dictates. “It’s the first time anyone has ever tried to understand my story,” she said, and I was glad for that. We talked for quite a while, offering each other forgiveness and reassurance, and then she said, “Your father is going to call.”
To understand the anxiety I felt, you have to know that, when I left home at eighteen, my father shunned me for two years. I was dead to him. I had a strong sense that he would once again turn away from me for writing the memoir, but what happened is that he and I talked for four hours—undoubtedly longer than the total time we had conversed over the course of my life. Finally, he said, "Do I want you to publish this book? No, I don't. Do I think you should? Yes, I do." It was an amazing and generous gift that my father gave me, and I will always be grateful.
SR: In an interview with Diane Rehm last year, you recalled talking with your aunt about her experiences in 1960s Arabia over a casserole in your mother’s kitchen on Thanksgiving and being inspired to create the character of Gin. In what ways is this similar to other experiences you’ve had in researching these women’s lives?
KB: There have been a number of real-life women who have served as inspiration for my imagined characters, and they are most often women who, like Gin, pushed various boundaries of behavior and often paid the price. Gin, however, and the other women who populate In the Kingdom of Men, are the first characters whose lives I really had to research rather than observe. Because ITKOM is a historical novel set in a particularly volatile time and place, I felt a great of responsibility to certain factual elements of the story. Still, because of the Kingdom’s closed and restrictive culture, as well as the party-line loyalty that defined the Arabian American Oil Company, we really don’t know a great deal about the lives of women, Arab or American, in 1960s Saudi Arabia. Part of the pleasure of writing the book was imagining myself into their world.
The main character in the novel I’m working on now is named Anais by her mother, who was an acolyte of Anais Nin, and I’ve been enjoying my research into the life of the famous author of erotica—although she was so much more than that.
SR: In your latest novel In the Kingdom of Men, some of Gin’s experiences with her grandfather seem to mirror the childhood you describe in your memoir, In the Wilderness. Would you please describe your approach to alternating between fiction and memoir?
KB: I don’t know that I have an “approach,” which suggests awareness and intent. All I know is that when I’m writing fiction, it’s not about me but about my characters, no matter the similarities in our lives. What I was interested in with Gin and her fundamentalist background is how that mirrored the experience of women in Islamic Arabia. If I had set the novel in Australia, she may have had a different background altogether. Of course, I was able to bring experiential knowledge in to inform Gin’s character, and some of it is similar to mine, but not all of it. Perhaps the most defining difference between us is that, while Gin never believes, never makes that leap of faith necessary to religious enmeshment, I did.
When it comes to writing nonfiction, I’m quite strict and find the whole debate about “truthfulness” absurd and, often, willfully ignorant. When I’m writing personal history, as the writer/speaker/protagonist, I can attempt to re-create memory, but I’m always aware that, as Barbara Kingsolver notes, memory is a kin to truth but not its twin. Making stuff up when writing memoir indicates a simple lack of imagination. Again, it’s not about what you remember but why. It’s much more interesting and demanding to work with the invariably flawed memories that you have. The “creative” in creative nonfiction is not about content but about form and presentation. Just as is the case with fiction, the best works of nonfiction aren’t plot driven but character driven.
SR: In your memoir In the Wilderness, you write about the tension between spiritual purity and physical desires, especially as a young woman trying to understand her own sexuality. How did you approach this dichotomy as you were composing?
KB: The body/soul duality is very much with very many of us, and it is so deeply imbedded in our dominant culture that I fear we may never be free of it, although newer generations of writers, especially those women who are writing transgressive literature, are storming the gates with delightful impunity. The tension between purity and desire is an essential part of my thematic concerns as a writer. When I first started writing, it was impossible for me to imagine myself or my female characters not being punished or even killed for acting on their agency; the only alternative I could imagine was escape via self-destruction. (If you look over my novels, you will see that there is an ongoing motif of women drowning ala Ophelia.) Even though, by the conclusion of In the Kingdom of Men, readers may not see Gin McPhee’s story as a fairy tale, it’s certainly a happier ending than others I imagined.
SR: The characters of A Country Called Home are confronted by loneliness and isolation in the rural town of Fife. Is the West a lonely place? Why is it important for people like Thomas and Helen to become part of a community?
KB: The West is no lonelier a place than any other. It’s the individual who is lonely, whether that person is living in Manhattan or Malta, Montana. Some people need community more than others. Some thrive in solitude, whereas others fail to thrive without connection to the people around them.
I’ve spoken with other writers about the idea that, without loss, there is no story, and, without a story that ties you to the larger story of the community, you don’t have a communal identity. Once Thomas Deracotte suffers a loss that is witnessed by the people around him, his story becomes entwined with theirs, and, for better or worse, he begins to belong.
SR: In that same novel Manny finds community not only in the Deracotte family but also in the animals he adopts. Would you explain how you created that inclusive, ecological community?
KB: A Country Called Home began as a utopian novel, and Manny, orphaned and feral, remains as a somewhat romanticized prelapsarian presence—Adam before the fall. It’s commentary on the back-to-the-land movement, I suppose. There is no regaining Eden, of course, although I think that some people who light out for the western territories are often seeking just that. I know my father was, in his way. Manny represents all that Deracotte, in his blind idealism, longs to be—in harmony not only with Nature, but with his own nature.
SR: Water plays an important role in In the Kingdom of Men both as a means of survival in the Arabian Desert and a symbol of status and class. How do you develop symbols like this that both unite and divide your characters?
KB: Symbols, motifs, objective correlatives—all are a part of the unity, integrity, and harmony of a story and should rise organically from the content of the action and the concerns of the characters. In the desert, of course, water is everything and becomes a character unto itself, which means that it must have its own arc in the narrative. As with any arc, it must be attended to in the context of strategic placement and pacing, which simply means that, each time water appears, it needs to be working its ass off at every level, including literal and metaphorical. It’s got a job to do, which is to define the setting, develop the characters, and promote the plot, just like every other element of the story.
SR: Your essay “Almost Paradise” reflects the importance of water on a personal level: you define moments of your life by the river or creek you were near. How have water, story, and memory been connected in your life as a writer?
KB: My husband and I were living with our children in the canyon of the Clearwater River when I first began to write the essays that would give rise to In the Wilderness. I was trying to understand what the story was about—how the pieces of my memory narrative might be shaped toward a larger whole. Our house was perched on a basalt bluff, and I could look out and see miles of river below me. That summer, my husband and I were working to put in a garden, which, given the steep incline and lack of topsoil, wasn’t an easy task. I was spading up dirt, and, as I turned the soil, I thought about the rain that had washed the sediment down from the mountains where I once had lived, how that water had scored through rock and strata, leaving behind bits of granite and mica, shell and bone—the grit and gravel I was now sifting. At that moment, it hit me that what I held in my hands was memory. I literally dropped the shovel, ran to the house, and began writing.
When we moved to the prairie town of Moscow, Idaho, in 2000, it was the first time in my life I had lived away from water. Thirteen years later, I’m still grieving. Water, or the lack of it, is a part of place and, therefore, a part of memory and the story we tell ourselves of who we are. For the Bedouin, it’s the desert. For this logger’s daughter, it’s the river and its feeding streams.
SR: Storytelling builds community among the characters of In the Kingdom of Men—Gin shares stories with both Abdullah and Yash, and the Bedouins tell myths in their desert camps. How does this relate to your own methods of storytelling and the community you share with your readers?
KB: Story is communal, but that doesn’t mean it’s simple. Who owns the story is an enormously complex concern. We’ve all heard that “history is written by the victors,” yet it’s through story that we know and recognize each other and the commonalities of human existence. Exchanging story is exchanging not only personal history but the history of family, our faith, our culture, our racial identity. It takes a great deal of trust to share such stories because doing so necessitates vulnerability. There is great power in story, and that power, like any power, can be appropriated and abused, as we sometimes see when it comes to American Indian storytelling. There’s a reason why many indigenous peoples are loathe to share their sacred stories with a culture that systematically attempted to eradicate their language, their rituals, their very existence.
Speaking a true story can be a transgressive act, which is why Gin pretends that the story she tells about disobeying her grandfather is a piece of fictional storytelling—a morality tale. Why? Because women were and still are being punished for enacting their agency, but a woman who is proud and publicly declares that enactment is in even greater danger.
Abdullah’s reason for telling his story are different: he has nothing to hide. His is a lament at the loss of his homeland, his family, his tribe at the hands of the oil companies.
Writing personal nonfiction sometimes feel like an act of transgression, which is strange to me, and I think speaks to some readers’ uneasiness with what has traditionally been called the confessional (which, in a literary sense, simply means paying attention to the life of the emotions). Really, the best literary memoirs aren’t defined by their tell-all quality but by their attention to the art and craft of narrative writing and heightened stylization. When I’m asked why I write memoir and personal essays, my answer is that I write first and foremost to serve the art. I also believe that, by bearing witness to my own story, I am bearing witness to the stories of others, which is where the communal nature of storytelling comes in. What I tell my students is this: even though you are writing about yourself, the story is not about you. It’s about the human condition, the fears and longings and desires and losses that inform and define us all. My friend and former professor, William Kittredge, once told me that, when people read my memoir, they should come away knowing more about themselves than they do about me. That should be true of any piece of writing, any work of art.
SR: Gin describes taking photos as seeing “the boundaries of the world falling away.” She begins to understand the relationships between humans and nature. In addition to writing, have you ever used photography or other types of visual art to understand the relationship between the natural world and humans? If so, how did that influence you?
KB: I love artistic photography, and I’m a bit envious of our daughter, Jordan Wrigley, who has an extraordinary eye for visual composition, but my relationship with the natural world is very intimate. I know it “up close and personal,” you might say, and less between me and the world outside, the better. I love standing in the middle of a river. I love sleeping out on the ground. I love sitting beneath the open sky, beneath the stars, in the sun, in the rain. My son once said to me, “You would just live outside if you could, wouldn’t you?” Yes. Yes, I would. When I’m out in the natural world, the veil between my existence and my creative thoughts falls away. I feel fully “integrated,” I guess. I feel wholly present, which is why I grieve when I have to return to the “real” world.
SR: In an interview with Buddy Levy for Red Room, you said you discover ideas by “listening for words and phrases that resonate not at the level of story necessarily, but at the level of music. I often begin with sound versus narrative.” I thought your description of inspiration was so beautiful—I even heard that statement as music. Can you expand on how and where you find inspiration?
KB: Maybe it was being raised in the church, with the cadences of the King James Bible and old-time gospel in my head, but I’m inherently aware of how sounds fit together, how syntax is sound, how story is a song. I started out writing poetry, and I still think like a poet: in sounds and images. On a less romantic level, I’m fascinated by language acquisition theory and how syntax and narrative movement are undoubtedly rooted in our DNA. Music at the level of the line feels like deep memory speaking.
SR: I absolutely love the essay “On Language: A Short Meditation,” in which you explore the beauty of colloquialism; “Our stories of survival were alive with color and sound, each word—Quickway, flume, blazer, buck, swamper, grappler, gyppo—holding its own miniature drama.” Would you explain how you deal with the constraints of “proper” English?
KB: I’ll never forget a former professor (now dear friend) telling me that I spoke English like it was my second language and the shame I felt. At the same time, whenever I would speak too formally, my logger father would scold me. “Talk Okie to me,” he’d say, and that brought with it a whole other kind of shame. Still, I don’t see proper English as a constraint—I see it as privilege and as opportunity, not only in a socio-cultural sense, but in the context of writing story, whether fiction or nonfiction. I’m so very aware of the “life” that lives inside each word, of its power to define me, my people, and my characters. Once, after I gave a reading, an older man came up to me and said, “I don’t remember the last time I heard someone use the word ‘stob.’ It brought back all kinds of memories. Thank you.” I felt lucky, then, that the language of my father lived on in me.
SR: Yash tells Gin in In the Kingdom of Men that women have great power in their desire for knowledge. How does this perspective apply to your own work as a student, educator, and writer?
KB: I am possessed of knowledge hunger, and I am insatiably curious, which, in the mythos in which I was raised, is a very dangerous thing. I love sharing knowledge; I love helping students see how their stories fit into a larger tradition. I am honored when people share with me stories of their families, their ancestral lineages, their homelands. I crave story like I crave knowledge. It creates context and allows us a way to understand how we are all bound together, how we are made of the same stardust, as Carl Sagan might say.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
KB: My husband and I have chosen to remain in the American West, where we feel connected to the landscape and are able to write in solitude. Our house sits on the south-facing flank of Moscow Mountain. My office, which was our youngest son’s room until he moved out on his own (since I had been using his older sister’s empty room up until that point, I often joke that I write in abandoned places), looks out over the rolling hills of the Palouse Prairie, which has some of the deepest topsoil in the world. Early in the summer, when the wind blows across the fields of wheat, peas, and lentils, it looks like the undulating surface of the sea.
When I’m struggling with a scene or section of dialogue, I sometimes move from my desk to sit at the window, gaze out, and clear my mind. There’s something about all that open landscape that allows my imagination to expand. Next to the window is a painting by my closest friend, the author Claire Davis, of a bird riding a Magic 8-Ball, used for fortune-telling and advice, but you have to look closer to make out the barely discernible lettering that scripts the blue sky: “Write your heart out,” “In your dreams,” and “Yes No Maybe.” I love looking up at it from my desk when I need to remember to take chances in my writing.
My desk was given to me by my younger brother, Greg, an electrical engineer, when it no longer fit his needs (and so it is that I write on abandoned desks!). On the wall to the left is a bullfighting poster that (after the date had passed) I peeled off of a telephone pole in San Miguel, Mexico, where my husband was teaching a workshop. Next to it, on the right, is the Governor of Idaho’s Proclamation, naming me the state’s writer-in-residence. Below is the US cover of In the Kingdom of Men, which my mother framed with various family trinkets and Arabian memorabilia that my aunt, who spent several years in Saudi Arabia, provided.
As is the case with most writers, my walls are lined with bookshelves. One contains some of the many historical texts, novels, and memoirs that I read while undertaking the years of research that went into writing In the Kingdom of Men. The small camel-hide purse on the lower shelf was given to me by my aunt as a gift when she returned from Saudi Arabia. The insulated Thermos on the top shelf – an Arabian-American Oil Company Safety Award – was an eBay find. On a lower shelf is a small bottle of sand from the Empty Quarter (Rub’ al Khali) – a treasure from a lovely woman who worked for Aramco in the 1960s and shared her wonderfully vivid memories with me. On another wall is my shrine to Hemingway and my other passion: fly-fishing. And, of course, every office must have a mascot. Mine is Opal, our Australian Shepherd, who watches me with great patience and curiosity and herds me on when I need direction.
The fields outside my window are green in the spring and early summer, but in the fall and winter, the late light takes on a whole other palette of color, and the hills turn apricot and tangerine. The shorter days of the colder seasons make for good writing time, and I often watch the sun set and the moon rise from my desk chair. When, after teaching and writing through three seasons, summer finally arrives, my husband and I take to a high mountain river very close to where I spent my childhood. We pitch our tent beside the water, and, when not fishing, we read, dine al fresco, and toast our good fortune with wild huckleberries dropped into glasses of champagne. This is where we let the wells of our imaginations refill, where new ideas for stories and poems come to us. We each carry notebooks in our fishing vests, and you can often spot us, standing in the middle of the river, jotting down lines and sentences and bits of dialogue that will make their way into our stories and poems once the fishing is done.*
*This is taken from a previous questionnaire that appears on my publisher’s UK website. You can see photographs here.