A Tiny Interview With Kim Barnes

How did you find yourself a writer? How has writing served and improved your life?

I came to writing through ravenous reading and a need to create a narrative of meaning that would help me make sense of my life. In a way, writing is my life. I cannot separate myself from it. It is not what I do but who I am. I carry around this quote from Mark Doty: “I didn’t understand that fusing my life to the narrative, giving myself to the story’s life, would be what would allow me to live.” Poetry works this way as well.

What images are you most fond of, do you find yourself returning to again and again?

I was raised in the Pentecostal Church of God, and the images of the Old Testament are very much with me, as are the images from the natural world that shaped me as a child growing up in the isolated logging camps of northern Idaho: wilderness, animals, fire, and, always, the river. Themes of hunger, being lost, desire, mercy, punishment, isolation, guilt, shame, redemption. A reader once asked, “Why do you pay so much attention to food in your writing?” The answer was simple: because food on the table was not always a given. It wasn’t until recently that I recognized how many women drown in my poetry and prose. Why? I came of age believing that any woman who attempted her own agency had only two choices: submission, which is a kind of death, or punishment unto death. I think that, subconsciously, I’ve seen drowning as some strange compromise: Ophelia floating in the lovely waters.

What advice do you have for young writers just beginning to practice their craft?

Approach the practice of writing like you would approach the practice of music. Do you want to play with the New York Philharmonic some day? You start at the beginning, learning the notes, and you practice. You progress, make mistakes, give recitals, fail, succeed, and you practice. You spend years learning the intricacies of your instrument. You study. You go to school. You learn the history and tradition of your music. You learn to improvise, experiment, interpret, but always you build on what you’ve learned. You study the work of the world’s great musicians. You talk to them. You listen. And you practice. You begin to think like a maker of music, not just a listener. Even after you’ve gained a seat in one of the world’s best orchestras, you practice hours every day. Especially then, you practice, because you mean to do so for the rest of your life.

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. Her second novel, A Country Called Home, winner of the 2009 PEN Center USA Literary Award for Fiction, was named a best book of 2008 by The Washington Post, The Kansas City Star, and The Oregonian. 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, Fourth Genre, Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. She is a professor of English in the MFA program at the University of Idaho.