A Conversation with Katrina Kittle
Katrina Kittle is the author of four adult novels—Traveling Light, Two Truths and a Lie, The Kindness of Strangers, and The Blessings of the Animals—as well as the young adult novel, Reasons to be Happy. In her former life, Kittle was a teacher at The Miami Valley School and Centerville High School, both located in Centerville, Ohio. She currently writes and teaches at multiple sites in the Dayton region, including Wright State University, Antioch University, and Word’s Worth Writing Center. In a conversation with profiles editor Christina Consolino, Kittle talks about her inspiration for book topics and characters, keeping creative energy alive, her mother’s influence on her writing, and how a diagnosis of breast cancer helped her find that elusive balance in life.
Christina Consolino: Your first novel, Traveling Light, centered on the topic of AIDS. Subsequent books have also tackled interesting and diverse social issues. How do you choose which subject to write about? Are there any issues that you feel should never be written about?
Katrina Kittle: I always have an issue that I either want to understand better or think more people need to know about. I do a lot of research on the matter to try to figure out which characters would populate a story about that topic, and from which angle the story hasn’t been told already. For example, at the time of writing Traveling Light, in the late ’90s, the only books I could find in fiction that dealt with AIDS were from a gay male perspective. That’s no longer true, but my approach at the time took on that different angle. Yes, it’s the brother who has AIDS, but the book is much more the sister’s story and one that shows what AIDS does to a whole family. To be honest, the issues kind of find me. But I don’t think there is anything I wouldn’t write about.
CC: Your third novel, The Kindness of Strangers, features Sarah Laden, a widow with two sons who becomes foster mother to a boy (Jordan) who has been sexually abused. How did the character of Sarah Laden come about, and what inspiration did you draw upon to cultivate such a compelling and convincing portrayal of a mother?
KK: The idea for The Kindness of Strangers came to me when I met a child whose story was not quite as horrific as Jordan’s but horrible nonetheless. The child’s foster mother told me of his story, which prompted me to begin research on sexual abuse. Sarah’s character came from my research and from my own experiences with children. As you know, I’ve been a teacher for a long time. And, even though I don’t have kids of my own, I have a niece and nephew I adore, I have directed children’s theater, and many kids have been a part of my life. So I’ve had a number of great nurturing roles. I wanted the story of this woman and her foster child to come forth in the book. I tried to form a character who I thought could handle it all.
CC: Your enthusiasm for teaching and writing is apparent from the moment you walk into a classroom, and your energy has encouraged many people to not only attempt to write a novel but also to continue in a vocation where many try but don’t succeed. What inspires you, both as a teacher and a writer, and how do you keep your creative spirit alive?
KK: I believe creativity is one of those things, like love, that has an endless supply—it’s not going to run out. And I truly believe that the more you give, the more you get. I’ve had so many generous teachers along the way, and I just want to pass that spirit on because the experience has changed my writing and made my journey easier.
Keeping that creative spirit alive is always possible. I have learned that I’m a better writer when I’m teaching and work-shopping other people’s pieces. It sounds selfish, but there really is a collective energy that emerges with creative people, an energy we all feed off of, but it only gets going when a whole bunch of us are together, helping each other.
CC: I know that you’ve taken on the role of a mother figure for some of your students, something not uncommon in the teacher-student dynamic. What are a few challenges that you’ve encountered with your students?
KK: I’m a real firm believer in that whole “it takes a village” idea, and I find it applies, in particular, to teaching. Many times with adolescents, the parent is absent or not paying attention to their child. It might be that the parents are both working late and therefore the kids are largely unsupervised—in a way that was not true when I was that age. So there are times that parents need to be made aware of things by the teacher, a scenario that can be challenging.
With the adults in my writing classes, I have to be aware that everyone has boundaries. Sometimes people’s stories bring up an issue that can touch on a real facet of a person’s life. So occasionally, an issue comes up, and I might want to help someone, but I also have to maintain what would be considered a proper boundary.
CC: Teachers take pleasure in their students’ accomplishments in much the same way parents take pride in their children’s accomplishments. What are you proud of in what your students have done?
KK: There are so many things that I could list. For example, cases like your writing group, The Plot Sisters, who met in one of my classes and continued to meet even after the class had finished. You’re feeding each other’s writings, and you’re paying it forward and helping each other. It’s when I watch someone continue to take the steps after I’m done teaching them. They continue to actually care about the craft of writing; they explore and keep doing the work and I see the evidence that they’re going to really do it and not just talk about it. That is exactly what I want to see. And then, of course, if somebody gets something published, whether it’s a short story or they win a contest or get a book deal, that’s phenomenal! I’ve had people ask me if the success of a student bothers me and no, I think it’s fantastic. Publishing is capricious and out of our hands. We can do a lot to get closer to it, but it’s not something we can make happen. But when I see people doing anything to get themselves closer to being published, continuing on, not under my tutelage anymore, but just doing it, that’s really exciting.
CC: I’m certain your own mother is especially proud of you. How has she shaped your writing?
KK: It’s really easy for people to give credit to my dad for shaping my writing, as he’s such a voracious reader, but my mother has been a tremendous influence. She was a preschool teacher and Girl Scout leader and is completely suited for both. She is incredibly curious, loves science and biology, and was the woman who answered the neighborhood kids’ questions about bones, fossils, birds, and flowers. My mom taught me to pay attention, an ability that starts early in life and which I think is crucial for any kind of artist. The ability served me really well as an actor before I even started writing. She’s also the kind of person who is compassionate and generous (sometimes to a fault, my dad might say). I think it’s from her that I got the idea that every person has a story: not the story to tell, but the story of them, the one you don’t know, the one they haven’t shared with you.
CC: Like many women, you have your fingers in a number of diverse pots. In addition to teaching and writing, you also act in local theatre productions and work at the Miami Valley Fair Housing Center. How did you find the balance that works for you?
KK: I found peace and balance the same summer that I was diagnosed with breast cancer. That spring, I was teaching and working on many manuscripts and for whatever reason, I decided to clear the deck. I told everyone, “I’m not going to do book clubs. I’m not going to go places and speak.” And then, I got the diagnosis. I ended up having two surgeries and radiation so I couldn’t travel anyway, and I didn’t have to cancel a single event because I’d already taken the time off. I spent a lot of time just being in my garden instead of working in my garden and I did a lot of thinking about balance in my life. I had time to really think about reentering the world: what I would do differently and how I would balance things better. If you think about what balance is, like on a teeter-totter, you have to constantly maintain it. You can’t just sit there and say to yourself, I’m balanced now. You have to shift this and shift that to keep the balance. I don’t know why but it was just that imagery of the teeter totter and recognizing it that actually helped me find the balance I needed. I set some different limits, which I needed to do, and everyone has been respectful and totally understanding.
CC: What are you working on now?
KK: I have a YA novel that is seeking a home, called Strange Katy, and I just finished the first draft of the next adult book that is set in a modern pandemic, for which we’re overdue. Without my meaning it to, the adult novel has turned into a kind of cancer story. It is very much a book about how sometimes the worst things that happen to us end up being our best teachers.
I’m also working on a children’s play, which is one of the first things I’ve collaborated with other artists on. It’s not a musical, but it is completely set to music. We are hoping to workshop it in July and stage it this fall.
And finally, I have started a manuscript consulting business along with two other local authors—Sharon Short and Kristina McBride. We can be found at www.WriteSistersConsulting.com.