I lived in the Pacific Northwest for forty years, and it was in the last two decades of that stint that I began to write. When I started, I didn’t know anything about writing communities. I didn’t know that if you scratched the surface of any city, town, village, hamlet, you’d find lots of people who scribble and who like to hang out with other scribblers and learn the craft.
I finally found the Skagit Valley writers league and joined it, and that’s where I met Judith Kirscht. She was president of the league. I’ve since moved away from the Skagit Valley, but I’m still interested in the writing lives of the people I became acquainted with there, and when Judith announced her new book, I asked if I could do an interview.
I think you’ll be interested in her path to publication. I think, too, that her answers to the questions posed are a window to her literary style and lyrical writing. I’ll include a purchase link to her latest book at the end of the interview.
LIZ: Tell me something about yourself
JUDITH: I was born and raised in Chicago, and it wasn’t until I finished college and was raising my family in Michigan before it occurred to me that I wanted to write. Then writing had to compete with child-raising, divorce, and earning a living, so it emerged in spurts while I taught college writing first at the University of Michigan and then at the University of California, Santa Barbara. It wasn’t until I retired in 2001 and moved to Washington State that I could devote myself to writing fiction.
It took ten more years to get published. Now I’ve published my fourth book in as many years so it looks as though I’m churning them out at amazing speed, though they’ve actually been written over forty years.
LIZ: Your latest novel is Hawkins Lane. Can you tell us something about it?
JUDITH: Hawkins Lane is set in the Cascades and is a story of love gone wrong. It’s about the power of the past to disrupt our futures. Both the hero, Ned Hawkins, who is the son of a murderer, and the heroine, Erica Romano, daughter of a family with expectations she cannot face, find in each other release from their pasts. They create a life they love in the mountains—in a clearing beyond the tree-tunneled lane that gives the book’s title—and give birth to a child, but then Ned’s father is released from prison, returning Ned to his previous fatalism and sense of impending doom and disrupts the harmony. Erica rebels against this return to the past, triggering a series of disasters that threaten to bring their lives to ruin. For both their survival depends on confrontation and victory over their pasts.
LIZ: Where do you get your ideas?
JUDITH: That’s a question I ask myself—often. HAWKNS LANE grew from an image that I woke up with one morning of child looking down a tree tunneled lane that had taken everything that had happened up into its boughs as though it had never been. Well, clearly that’s the end of a story I hadn’t yet told. HOME FIRES, my third novel, grew out of short story I wrote while living next to wild meadowlands, cliffs and beach near Santa Barbara, and by hindsight I can say it came out the fairytale aspects of that place. But that’s hindsight—in the beginning I had only an image of a woman in a tower looking out to the sea. What gets expressed in my stories remains a mystery to me except by hindsight. I can only say some image triggers the unconscious—things left unresolved, unexplored but released by the pen in a process we aren’t intended to understand.
LIZ: You said you began to write when you were raising your family. What triggered it?
JUDITH: That’s another mystery, in some ways. I grew up with the understanding that a wife a mother was what I was going to be, and I never questioned it until my daughters were half grown. But when I finally asked myself whether there was something else I would like to do, the answer was instantaneous. My husband said I’d told him I wanted to write, but I have no memory of it. In any case, I took myself up to the University of Michigan—an act more presumptuous than I can ever explain—and made an appointment to talk with the professor in charge of the Hopwood Room—the room where the creative writers hung out (they had no creative writing program in those days). When I got home, I went into shock at what I’d done and realized the professor was going to ask to see my writing. Duh. I had none. So I sat down with a yellow pad and wrote about growing up near the University of Chicago football stadium while they were experimenting with nuclear fission. I don’t think it was even typed, but he read it and said “You’re a writer.”
That was all it took. I have a sign above my desk to this day that says “You’re a Writer.” I studied under him for four years, wrote two novels, and won the literary prize for which that room was named.
LIZ: And you kept it up for forty years. Why?
I think it opened a part of myself I had had no access to. I grew up in a very academic family—very left brained. My mother once mentioned I wrote lovely stories, but I don’t remember them. Emotional expression was not encouraged, so I had no ready access to that side. By the time I reached that stage of adulthood there was a whole submerged person ready to spring forth. I write to discover myself, to understand myself, to understand others, the world.
LIZ: What advice would you give to would-be writers?
JUDITH: Do it. Understand that the rational brain that directs your life will always resist opening up that other side. It’s exposure. I resist going to my computer every morning and unless I made it as habitual as brushing my teeth, I’d never get there. The rational mind is very used to having its way. After 25 years of teaching writing, I assure you procrastination is the greatest enemy of any kind of writing—academic, business, or creative; probably 90% of the papers turned in were written the night before. I have a gifted writer friend who can’t sit down to the computer until the night before our critique group meets. That’s a shame.
LIZ: What are you working on now?
JUDITH: I’m revising a novel that began during the November Novel Writing Month about three years ago. It’s been interrupted by revising other work, but it’s close to ready now. It’s set on an island in the Puget Sound. That first professor told me I write from place, and he’s turned out to be right. For me, place produces characters and characters produce stories. The Inheritors is set in Chicago, where I grew up, Nowhere Else to Go is set in a Midwestern college town in the ‘60s—a fictional version of Ann Arbor where I raised my family, Home Fires is set on that area of wild meadowland and cliffs above the beach near Santa Barbara. Hawkins Lane is the first set in the northwest—in the Cascade where I’ve never lived, but am now familiar with.
My thanks to Judith Kirscht. As promised, click here for a link to where you can purchase HAWKINS LANE.