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Friday, January 22, 2010

Interview ~ Author Kristin Bair O'Keeffe

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe is the author of Thirsty and an American who has been living in Shanghai, China, since April 2006. She is also a voracious reader, a happy mom, an engaging teacher who believes in “telling the best story you can…believing in your writing…and working your arse off,” a fierce advocate for the end of domestic violence, and a writer who spends as much time as possible in writerhead.

Kristin’s work has been published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Poets & Writers Magazine, San Diego Family Magazine, The Baltimore Review, The Gettysburg Review, and many other publications. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago and has been teaching writing for almost fifteen years. If you’d like to learn more, visit here and here.

Tell us a bit about your current project.

My debut novel Thirsty was published in 2009 by Swallow Press. It’s the story of one woman’s unusual journey through an abusive marriage, set against the backdrop of a Pittsburgh steel community at the turn of the twentieth century. While in places, Thirsty is as dark as it sounds, the thread of magical realism woven throughout lifts this story into one of hope and light. (You gotta check out the butterflies…)

We are all about journeys...unique ones at that. How convoluted was your path to your first published book? Share some highlights or lowlights from your path to publication.

I took the circuitous route to publication. I wrote the first scene of Thirsty in 1992 during my first semester in grad school; I finished the novel somewhere around 1999. Once I had a complete, polished manuscript, I tried (and failed) to get an agent for it. Lots of interest, but in the end, no takers.

Thankfully, I have this built-in belief in my work…never have I faltered from my writing path, never have I seriously considered taking up dentistry, never have I paid one lick of attention to anyone who suggested I might not make it in this business. After failing to get an agent for Thirsty, I put it away for a few years and worked on other projects…all along knowing that when the right time came along, Thirsty would find its home.

And it did. I signed a contract with Swallow Press in 2008…sixteen years after writing the first scene of Thirsty. How’s that for a journey?

Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.

Of course I have moments of “Oh, my god! Am I completely insane to think I can make it in the writing world?” but like I said, I refuse to put energy to such thoughts.

On the other hand, I do suffer this incredibly painful churning of the soul (which includes the stomach) whenever I’m subconsciously working on a particular aspect of a story. I get this unbearable welling of tension and angst that turns me into an insomniac and a nutball until I can sit down and pour out all that has been welling. (Sounds terrible, I know, but it’s even worse for my husband.)

What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?

One time when playing with the built-in camera on my new Mac laptop, I accidentally (and unknowingly) embedded a self-taken photo of me in a query letter I was emailing to an agent. I’m pretty sure the ghoulish morning photo with my curls poking up this way and that and a crazy, eye-rolling look on my face had something to do with why she didn’t sign me, but I’ll never know for sure.

What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?

I have a two-year-old daughter. Every morning when we set out on our daily walk around our neighborhood in Shanghai, I say to her, “Keep your eyes open. You never know what you’ll see.”

Now that she can talk, she says to me, “Mumma, I keep eyes open. I see big bus!”

Or, “Mumma, I keep eyes open. I see chicken man!”

Or, “Mumma, I keep eyes open. I see blue crocus!”

My best way of finding story ideas?

I keep eyes open; I see story.

Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments you’d like to share with us, the ones wherein you get “the look” from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to use to disembowel a six foot man…please do tell.

Hee hee…the “normals.” I love that term.

I get loads of looks from the normals when I’m reading my work out loud…which is all the time. As a writer, I’m obsessed with the rhythm and sound of every single word in every single sentence I put on a page. I read everything out loud (including this guest blog post)…over and over again; if I hear a clunker word, I replace it, and then I read the entire piece out loud again.

Of course, if you’re thinking I only do this in the privacy of my own office, you’re dead wrong. I read my work out loud in coffee shops, book stores, airports…pretty much any place they’ll allow me to plop down with my computer and work.

The normals don’t get this at all. As I ramble on and on, they stare, nudge one another, smirk, crinkle up their faces…all as they try to figure out if I’m off my rocker.

I like to keep them guessing.

With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears you if beginning this writing journey today?

The way I look at it, there are two parts to being a writer:
1)the mystery of discovering and writing stories
2)the business of finding homes for and marketing those stories
Keep the two parts separate. Trust the mystery of your story as you’re writing it. Listen to it. Breathe it in. Breathe it out. See it in your dreams. Carry it on your daily walk to the river. Once you’ve finished a story, believe in it. Then do everything you can to find a home for it.

What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?

There’s not one event or person that has changed me as a writer; writing, for me, has been (and continues to be) a cumulative path, one in which I’ve changed and grown slowly over time, sometimes as a result of an exchange with another person, sometimes as a result of an event, sometimes as a result of a random lightning strike.

But one significant moment sticks in my head. I was around nineteen years old, a freshman or sophomore at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. I was taking a writing course with a grad student named Kitsey Ellman. God, I was the shyest person in class, but also, I think, the most determined to follow the writing life. Like a lot of my fellow classmates, I started out the semester writing flat, boring, young stories…no voice, no understanding of structure, etc. But then one day I let loose and wrote this story…a wacky story, probably a very bad story, but the first story in which I heard my voice. One (very politically incorrect) line was repeated throughout: “The fat, fat food server wants my potato.” Somehow it all worked.

The cool thing? Kitsey heard my voice, too. She called me out on it and made me (well, convinced me) to read it to a bunch of visiting English professors. They loved it, too…and god, did they laugh.

I think about that moment when I’m either hitting the high notes of my storytelling voice or straying too far from it. I don’t know whatever became of Kitsey, but that moment when she heard what I heard changed me.

What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why? (Doesn't have to be one of your books or even published.)

I’m pretty proud of Thirsty…proud that I told the story I wanted/needed to tell…proud that women around the world are responding to it…proud that I persevered and believed in it.

Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?

I think writers should be paid the same salaries as NBA basketball players. We provide a lot of entertainment for folks.

Share a dream or something you'd love to accomplish through your writing career.

A reader in, say, Los Angeles opens the online NYTimes Book Review and sees a review of my newest book. “Oh,” she shouts, “Kristin Bair O’Keeffe has a new book coming out! I can’t wait!” She calls her best friend to share the news, tweets about it to all her Twitter pals, posts a link on her Facebook page to the thumbs-up review, preorders one copy for herself and two copies to give as gifts. Then she goes to my website, looks up my schedule of upcoming events, sees that I’m going to be reading and signing books near her home, and puts the date in her calendar. On the day of the reading, she stands in line for almost an hour so I can sign her book. “Oh,” she says when we finally meet, “I’ve read all your books.”

Or something close to that.

What gives you the greatest writer buzz, makes the trip worth the hassles (besides coffee or other substances, or course )?

I love when a reader “gets” it. Recently I had a terrific radio interview with Cyrus Webb at “Conversations Live,” a radio show about books and authors, and I tell you what…this guy does his homework. He read Thirsty backward and forward…and during the interview he honed in on a particular key passage in a way that showed, yep, he got it.

What is one of the more unique or strange life experiences that has really given you an extra oomph in your writing?

I’m American. My husband is Irish. Our daughter is Vietnamese. We live in Shanghai, China.

This unique smorgasbord of cultures has taught me a good bit about life, the world, and people…it’s also given me a lot to write about.

Describe your special or favorite writing spot or send a picture if you'd like.

Want a little peek into my writing life and the neighborhood in Shanghai that inspires me? Watch this video.

What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?

Dialogue was tough for me at first. (In fact, I think there were only three lines of dialogue in the first draft of Thirsty.) But by listening to the conversations going on around me and by practicing, I got more comfortable writing it.

What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?

New notebook. New blue Pentel EnerGel pen (preferably 0.5 mm ball, but 0.7mm will do in a pinch). Clean desk. Clear head.

Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?

Here’s my ideal writing morning:

It’s 5:00 a.m. A bit of fuzzy light squeezes through the curtains. My husband doesn’t wake as I roll out of bed, still carrying the morning’s dream with me. I stumble to the kitchen, pour a glass of grapefruit juice and a glass of water, and stumble back to my office. I sit down at my desk, content to be in the creative state I call “Writerhead.” I open my journal, write by hand for a while, then turn on my computer and start clicking away at the keys. A few hours later with a few thousand words under my belt, I open my office door and join the rest of the world.

Of course, as a mom to an energetic, chatty, absolutely hilarious two-year-old, my ideal writing morning doesn’t happen all that often anymore. Instead I squeeze the writing in where I can: while my daughter naps, while I have a few hours of childcare in the afternoons, in the evenings after she goes to bed.

Plot, seat of pants or combination?

First draft? Seat of the pants.

After that? I put a lot of conscious thought to plot including a complicated organizational system that includes putting various colored stickies on printed chapters. (Way too complicated to explain here…but it works for me.)

What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book? Ex. Do you have saggy middles, soggy characters, soupy plots during your first drafts…if so, how do you shape it up?

The hardest part for me is moving from the big, sloppy first draft to a somewhat-shaped second draft. I growl a lot as I try to figure out who the characters are, from what point of view the story should be told, etc. I’m usually pretty clear about whose story it is, but geez, getting all the dots to connect is hell. I love when the story has a firm shape (around the fifth or sixth draft) and I can dig into the close work.

Have you received a particularly memorable reader response or peer honor? Please share.

Recently a fellow Twitterer tweeted: “Voraciously reading your novel. You are a helluva storyteller.” That’s exactly what I want to be.

Have you discovered any successful marketing/promo ideas that you'd share with us?

Three things:

I love social media—especially Twitter, Facebook, and blogging. Despite the fact that I live halfway around the world from most of my readers (and potential readers), I’m able to connect with them on social media sites. In addition to getting Thirsty into a number of new readers’ hands, I’ve made some good friends and discovered new authors.

Although the jury is still out on how successful book trailers are at moving books, I’m a big fan of them. I had a great time creating one for Thirsty. Check it out here.

Readers love contests (and cool free stuff). I’ve given a number of copies of Thirsty away via contests on my blog and Twitter…along with cool free stuff from China. My theory? The more you give, the more you get.


  1. Thanks for sharing your journey, Kristin. Embedding an unflattering self-portait jpg, ugh. : )

  2. Thanks to you, Kelly, for having me at Novel Journey. (And yep, I'm REALLY careful when using the "Photo Booth" on my Mac now...)

  3. I have heard so much about Kristin and her book. I am so glad to see her over at Novel Journey. You've reminded me how much I want to read her book!


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