Debut novelists hold a special place in my heart. I particularly love novelists that never give up and those that spend years crafting the most perfect book. When I finished the final pages of The Art of Falling, I knew that I needed to reach out to the author. What sealed the deal though was Kathryn’s Q&A at the end of her book that really gave me pause. She is talking about one of those scary topics that we often dance around. She talks about suicide and how it impacted her personally and how it was reflected in the character of her book.
Robin Williams certainly brought the topic of mental illness to the forefront this year. I can honestly say that reading through my Facebook feed that sad day, I was disturbed by the reactions of people and the things they said about it- I think mental illness is still something so few of us understand. For me, I just hoped that in these sad moments, people would find courage to seek help and that it might bring to light the struggles of the mentally ill. I keep my heart pretty guarded on here, but I am no stranger to mental illness or depression. I think that is why this book touched me very deeply.
In Craft’s novel, we get to take a glimpse behind the world of dance with new eyes. All Penny has ever wanted to do is dance—and when that chance is taken from her, it pushes her to the brink of despair, from which she might never return. When she wakes up after a traumatic fall, bruised and battered but miraculously alive, Penny must confront the memories that have haunted her for years, using her love of movement to pick up the pieces of her shattered life.
I am completely enraptured with the dance world and this really brought to life the struggle of a dancer and body image. What unfolds is a beautiful story of the unlikely friendships that pull her from her depths of despair, a mother who refuses to let her give up on her dreams, and finding movement again when confidence has been lost. Beautifully told and rich characters make this novel a fast page-turner that I just could not put down. I can’t wait to read more from Kathryn Craft!
Grab a cup of coffee and settle in for this beautiful and heartfelt interview today with this week’s featured author.
It is such an honor to feature your debut novel, The Art of Falling, on our site. I understand that this novel was eight years in the making. So very few people could dedicate themselves to one project this long- what an incredible feat. Why did you think it was important to see this work through and did you have any doubts during this process that you would finish it?
Thanks so much for having me, Amy! Even as a teenager I used to say that “perseverance” was my middle name, so I guess I’ve always had that kind of intense focus—and I’ll tell you, as a writer that is a very handy quality! I can think of three ways to answer your question, though, and combining them galvanized my commitment.
The first is the reason I wrote this story to begin with. After my first husband committed suicide seventeen years ago, when our sons were just eight and ten, I got caught overly long in the grief stage of anger. I knew the way to emerge from it was to forgive him, but that required empathy for him I couldn’t conjure. He was 54, depressed, alcoholic, and financially reckless, all attributes unfathomable to a 40-year-old, responsible optimist. I needed to create a female character from my world who might be pushed to the point of such despair—and Penelope Sparrow was born. Penny is a dancer who blames her body for the ruin of her dream dance career, yet who survives what should have been a deadly fall due to the miraculous strength and resilience of that same body. I could relate to her. In the backstory, had I taken away enough of what she loves for her to consider suicide? I wasn’t sure—so I wrote the novel to find out.
But healing from a horrific event takes time. Years and years of time. Early readers could tell you that Penelope, like her author, started out a much angrier character. I knew my anger would be healed when agents started telling me she was now a woman whose arc they admired. A lovely side benefit was that my storytelling skills improved along the way.
Second, once the characters started coming alive to me, I knew I would hang in there with them for the long haul because I loved them. They never stopped sharing their secrets when I pushed them for more. They were troubled and brave—and honestly, I miss them since publication! I wanted to do right by them, and make sure their story was told.
The last reason was ridiculously pragmatic—I wanted something to go in my author’s bio! I was a dancer, choreographer, and dance critic. I was a biology major and I have a master’s in health and phys ed. The world of this book both surrounded me and lived in my body. I was the person to write it, and had credentials to back that up. I really felt this needed to be my debut title.
Penelope’s suicide attempt and your own life had some parallels. Why did you feel suicide was an important topic to explore? Has this process changed your own feelings about suicide and those who struggle with depression? Have you found writing this story to be therapeutic in your own journey towards understanding?
Therapeutic, yes, but I’m not done writing about suicide yet. My second novel, The Far End of Happy, due out in May 2015, is based on the true story of my husband’s day-long standoff against a massive police presence, novelized to feature the points of view of the three women closest to him as they await word and try to sustain hope. Our decision to choose life, every day, is just so elemental that calling it into question presents a fascinating array of story problems. Real world problems with no easy answers, as my next novel will show.
Case in point: I just happened to reveal my cover for this second novel on the day beloved comedian Robin Williams was found dead by his own hand. The outcry on social media was immediate: we need to offer a more sympathetic ear to those who are depressed! Wouldn’t that be nice if mental illness could be so easily solved, and people were that willing to be transparent? What I know now, from life experience and writing two novels, is that neither of these things are true. Like most subjects, once you delve into them deeply, you become more painfully aware of their complexity.
Yet still I strive to write novels that resolve on a note of hope, what I consider to be the most critical component for a joyful life. This is the great calling of the storyteller: to rearrange the chaos of real-seeming events in order to create order, understanding, and change.
Kathryn Craft dancing- source Barnes & Noble
You are a former dancer, choreographer, and critic so I know you know firsthand how harshly critical and taxing being a dancer can be on the body and mind. Penelope’s struggle with her own body image issues are a big focus in this book. Did you ever struggle with these issues yourself as a dancer? As a critic, did you struggle with reviewing other dancers knowing what it is like to be on the receiving end of criticism?
Despite my academic exploration of its inner workings and movement, our bodies ultimately are a mystery that can be influenced but not controlled. I think all dancers struggle with this to some extent but since I hadn’t experienced Penny’s specific issues I drew on other ways my body disappointed me to find that emotional connection: fair skin back when tan was “it,” fertility struggles and miscarriages when I desperately wanted children; inducement and flagging contractions when I wanted to deliver naturally; graying hair and wrinkles when I still struggled with acne (I mean come on, is that fair?). Yet despite the human body’s betrayals, there is no creation more magnificent. I wanted to write about that conflict.
Early on, as a critic, I had to own the fact that I was not criticizing other dancers; I was expressing one woman’s informed opinion about a work of choreography and its execution in a way that would be evocative for the reader. Otherwise, how could I have had the hubris to set fingers to keyboard for publication? I’m also a developmental editor, so I continue to use my critical mind, sharing my informed yet very personal assessments. This sensibility helps me as an author to establish an even keel as I read what others say about my work.
When Penelope decides that she can’t do dance anymore she takes a job as an aerobics instructor and then later a short-lived position in their family’s candy factory. What is one job you have had in your life that could not have been a worse fit?
Fun question! Had to be secretary. Imagine a dancer, confined to a chair all day. I used to fill in at my neighbor’s manufacturer’s rep firm, taking orders, filing, typing letters, and making coffee. Okay the talking on the phone part I could do (hello, I’m a woman). But I was a creative filer, my lack of touch typing and the resulting syncopation constantly had my boss shutting the door between our offices for his sanity, and since I didn’t drink coffee at the time—let’s just say it typically sat there all day until it burned. I resigned with a misspelled letter typed halfway upside down. My ex-boss has it to this day and will whip it out for another round of laughter when I visit.
The relationship I loved the most was the one you created between Penelope and her mother. There was such a good balance of the real love and strain of mother and daughter relationships. Were the scenes between them difficult to write especially when it comes to Evelyn’s own weight issues and Penelope’s growing insecurity that she is like her mother?
Heck no! The great fun of being a novelist is letting rip confrontations that you would never dare allow in real life. It was fun to let them butt heads, especially surrounding the turning point that many mothers and daughters struggle with: seeing each other as adult women. That said, it wasn’t all giggles, of course. I too find some of their scenes deeply moving.
Since you have been a dancer, choreographer, and critic, which of these characters, in the book, do you relate to the most?
Each of them carries a spark from me, for sure. To reduce inner conflict, can I plead the fifth?
I think it has to be the critic—any creative with a critical bone in her body knows how hard it is to turn off the critic! Plus, she’s the most misunderstood. She is a creative too—her art form is derivative, of course, but it is an art form (something we forget in this world of “everyone who can bestow a star rating is now a critic”). She is an advocate for dance excellence, and this one has a personal cause as well that is as worthy as my reasons for writing the novel.
Plus who am I kidding? I have to say the critic. If I don’t, I’m afraid of what she’ll write about me…
I’m obsessed with dancing and all things dance so I must ask, what is your favorite song to dance to and where is your favorite place to dance?
While on your basic wedding event dance floor, my absolute fave is “It’s Raining Men” by the Weather Girls. That song tickles the hell out of me and it’s such a great beat, with all the building swirl of a storm on top. My favorite non-traditional place to dance? Grocery store aisles! (Yes, you’ll now recognize me…)
If you could tell anyone to read one book (other than your own) what would that book be?
Ah, the dreaded one book question, asked of a multiple-book lover! Since I know nothing about the reader, including why he or she reads—and given my answers to the question about critical subjectivity—I’ll assume your real question is “What book could someone read that would reveal the most about you?” You said “book,” not “novel,” for which I am grateful, since novels are such delicious slices of life it would be like asking if you could only taste one food what would it be. So I am going to go the nonfiction route and say The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck. A brilliant life guide that I’ve read many times, my sensibilities are all over its pages.
You can connect with Kathryn Craft on GoodReads or on Facebook! I’m always thankful for these moments with writers and I hope you will pick up this amazing book! You can always connect with me on GoodReads,through our books section of our site, and you can read our entire Sundays With Writers series for more author profiles. Happy reading, friends!
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