Stefanie Freele interviews Kat Meads
Kat Meads – on Madam Lenin, Sleeplessness, and Writing Like A Man
Interviewed by Stefanie Freele
Kat Meads is the author of twelve books and chapbooks of poetry and prose. Her fifth novel, For You, Madam Lenin, is forthcoming this fall from Livingston Press. A native of North Carolina and graduate of the MFA Writing Program at UNC-Greensboro, she now calls the Bay Area home. Her awards includean NEA, a California Artist Fellowship and artist residencies at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Yaddo, Millay Colony, and the Montalvo Center for the Arts. Other prizes include the Chelsea award for fiction, the New Letters award for essay, and the Editors’ Choice award from Drunken Boat. Her short plays have been produced in Los Angeles, New York and the Midwest. Reviewers have called her work “smart and provocative” (Other Voices), “bold and beautiful” (Midwest Book Review), “riveting” (New Pages), “brilliant” (SFRevu), “passionate and gut-wrenching” (Alan DeNiro) and “breathtaking” (John Dufresne). She teaches in Oklahoma City University’s low-residency MFA program and as a Creative Nonfiction mentor. Visit her online at katmeads.com.
SF: You have produced long fiction, short fiction, realistic fiction, sci-fi, poetry, fables, non-fiction, etc. What is it like to be prolific in many genres?
KM: Actually, I don’t feel at all prolific. I started publishing fairly late by the standards of the day (in my thirties). And although it looks as if I’ve been cranking them out lately, the publication dates aren’t really indicative of when the books were written, or even started.
When the Dust Finally Settles is a novel—and a short one!—that I rewrote for 20 years. And although Sleep was my first published novel, I’d written several versions of Kitty Duncan before starting on Sleep’s speculative journey. The novel that’s coming out in October from Livingston Press, For You, Madam Lenin, took eight years or so to research and compose, and it falls in the historical fiction category. But as far as genre jumping goes, I just follow my nose and whatever interests me at the moment. I don’t deliberately set out to vary the form.
SF: Can you give us a sneak preview of Madam Lenin?
KM: Sure. The snippet below is the novel’s introduction to both Nadezhda Krupskaya (Madam Lenin) and her acerbic mother, the narrator of this chapter:
“When the tsar’s government ordered us from Poland in the spring of 1874, my daughter, Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya, was forced to leave behind her dog. A mongrel dog with a limp and copious fleas. Did such defects and disadvantages lessen my Nadya’s love for the beast? Not in the slightest. Very likely such misfortunes made my daughter cherish her pet all the more.”
SF: What was behind the decision to and experience of trying a novel with a male protagonist in Senestre On Vacation? You also wrote this under an ambiguous pseudonym, Z.K. Burrus. This reader did not guess the author was female, you had me convinced. How did you inhabit the male mind while writing this novel?
KM: Very happy to hear you were convinced! I’ve since owned up to the ruse, but for six months or more I had great fun putting together a Z.K. Burrus website, altering my singing voice to sound male on an “Irene, Goodnight” book trailer, posing online as Z.K., responding as Z.K.
In Senestre, I wanted to see if could I “throw” my writer’s voice in that particular way. So writing that book was something of a self-to-self challenge. And there’s always the desire to “start fresh” with each project and pretend we come to it unencumbered by our various writerly tics and quirks. A few people did perceive the Kat in the Z.K. They had to be bound and gagged and locked in the cellar for six months, but otherwise…
SF: In your novel The Invented Life of Kitty Duncan, you’ve paired two odd characters together: a sassy, lazy, yet clever teenage mother and a bright driven college student. What are your thoughts on the importance and technique of juxtaposing dialogue and individual voice of characters?
KM: I suppose some would argue that whenever you bring together wildly different characters you are, as a writer, taking the easy road. Glaring differences always make for a certain degree of conflict and tension. But in Kitty Duncan I wanted those glaring differences to incite more than conversational sparring and stand-offs between narrator Mo and Kitty. I wanted those differences to cause Mo no end of doubt and trepidation, to push her to evaluate (and to continue evaluating) her life choices.
What still catches me by surprise about that novel is the intensity of the reactions to Kitty Duncan, the character. People either love or loathe her. No neutrals. I was once discussing the book in a class at East Carolina University and one of the students started screaming—and I do mean screaming—about how much she utterly despised Kitty Duncan. Then again, another someone in that same class pledged to name her next cat Kitty Duncan—which was pretty damn cool.
SF: In your novel Sleep (Livingston Press), separate cultures have developed in regard to their belief systems around the pros and cons of rest. You’ve said that this other-worldly sci-fi novel was inspired by your battles with insomnia. How has sleeplessness affected your writing?
KM: Since I’m just now finishing up a collection of nonfiction called The Insomnia Essays, I’d say: a lot. I’m in perpetual mourning for the deep sleeping gal I once was. Truly.
Very soon after I moved to California, my sleep battles began, but I avoided the word insomnia for a ridiculous amount of time. I guess I was hoping denial would be the cure. Regardless, insomnia it was and is. At the time—early 1990s—the culture was shifting to its all-information-all-the-time state of being and demand, and my brooding about that phenomenon also found its way into the book. I also think of Sleep as something of a future feminist fairytale, but that’s a mouthful that’ll never be taken up as a chant.
SF: Your newest book, when the dust finally settles (Ravenna Press), is described by Jason Sanford, the founding editor of storySouth, as “explod(ing) the stale stereotypes of the South.” Was that your intention? How did your southern upbringing and experience play into the book?
KM: Jason was very kind to say the book accomplished that, but as far as intentions—no. Dust started out as a fairly straightforward coming-of-age tale. Ultimately I realized I wanted the book to deal with regret, and regret isn’t really in a teenager’s vocabulary. So Clarence Carter, dead man narrating, came to be.
Both dust and Kitty are set in Mawatuck County, a fictional stand-in for Currituck County, North Carolina, where I grew up. I’ve made no secret of that. The social and economic upheavals that were part of my own coming-of-age—the integration of schools, farmers ousted by real estate developers, daughters declining to marry and “settle down”—were in no way unique to Currituck. Nonetheless, life there changed fairly radically in a relatively short period of time. Fiction thrives on that kind of discord and realignment. Some material you seek out as a writer. Other material gets dumped in your lap. I’m a female born at a certain time in a certain place, and that place just happened to have been a changing South.