A shorter version of this interview appeared in my November newsletter, but I loved the longer version so much, I wanted run it here. I hope you enjoy it!
Kathryn Craft is the award-winning author of two novels, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy, and the author of chapters in Author in Progress and The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing from Writers Digest Books. Her fourteen years as a freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic.
Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she is an active member of Pennwriters; the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, serving as its 2020 Guiding Scribe; and an award-winning marketing cooperative of women authors, Tall Poppy Writers. Kathryn leads writing workshops and retreats, mentors novelists through her Your Novel Year program, teaches for Drexel University’s MFA program, and is a regular contributor to top writing blog WriterUnboxed.
About her books
The Art of Falling: All Penny ever wanted to do was 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.
The Far End of Happy: Ronnie’s husband is supposed to move out today. But when Jeff pulls into the driveway drunk, with a shotgun in the front seat, she realizes nothing about the day will go as planned. The next few hours spiral down in a flash, unlike the slow disintegration of their marriage—and whatever part of that painful unraveling is Ronnie’s fault, not much else matters now but these moments. Her family’s lives depend on the choices she will make—but is what’s best for her best for everyone?
Conversing with Kathryn
Q: What drew you to fiction after so many years in dance and as a dance critic?
Kathryn: During my first marriage, back when I was a dance critic, I was known for saying, “With so many real stories in the world to tell, why make one up?” Hardly an intro to a career as a novelist, right?
Then, s**t got real. My sons (8 and 10 at the time) and I lived through the unfolding drama of my husband’s suicide standoff against a massive police presence. What does a writer do with an experience like that? Well, if she wants to learn and grow and create meaning, she writes about it.
First, I wrote memoir. Then, considered and discarded notions of nonfiction book, self-help, magazine articles, and essays. Turns out I didn’t want to cite statistics or convince or warn. I wanted to write to show how, in the face of one of the most unconscionable acts to be taken by someone who says they love you, the characters in this family sustained hope.
Life can seem random and chaotic. People come to fiction in search of a world ordered through consistent characterization. A carefully constructed story gives us a chance to point readers toward an equally true, yet better ending. I sought order. I sought consistency. In my hands, hope could suggest a better ending.
So, in the end, I wrote fiction.
Oh, that and I’d had my nose in a novel ever day of my life—doh!
Q: Your novels are informed by your own life experiences (your dance/choreography/critic career and your husband’s death by suicide), yet you succeed in ensuring that they do not feel autobiographical. Your characters are unique, and they own their experiences. How difficult was that, to draw so strongly from your own life, but remain true to the craft of fiction?
Kathryn: Thank you for these kind, very hard-won words!
Penelope Sparrow, in The Art of Falling, was more fictional, and therefore easier for me. I started dancing late and never sought a professional career. While I didn’t suffer from body image issues to the extent Penelope did, my mother was always weighing me with her eyes when I entered a room, often commenting on my weight before anything else. Someone like that, especially someone you are related to, can systematically shred your spirit. A saving grace for me was my interest in science; I was a biology major undergrad and I have a master’s in health and phys ed. Our bodies are nothing less than miracles, and, as the only means we have to convey our spirits here on Earth, they deserve the utmost respect and love. Steeped in a dance world I was familiar with, showing how that negatively impacted Penelope’s relationships was simple extrapolation. “Simple” in that it took me eight years to figure out, lol.
The situation in The Far End of Happy was harder to wrap my head around. For each change away from “fact,” I had to ask myself, “how does this change improve the kind of story I want to tell?” For instance, my mom and dad were sequestered with me during the real-life suicide standoff. It was comforting to see their faces that day, but they could have been framed pictures on the wall for all they did to impact the unfolding drama. That doesn’t fly in fiction. What characters could I create, that could better drive the narrative?
For the novel, I made it Ronnie, the wife whose self-actualization will leave her husband behind; her mother, with an unresolved past as concerns both suicide and elusive love; and a mother-in-law who judged worth through monetary value. I did this to show that the three women closest to Jeff didn’t really know him at all. They hadn’t seen the threat of suicide coming, and yet they were left behind to clean up the mess. Each of them also kept secrets that blow up from the standoff’s tensions, exploring the very real phenomena of blame after a suicide.
Once you change who Ronnie is with, you change Ronnie, too, as she interacts with these characters. My sub-genre is called “psychological women’s fiction” and I pay close attention to the development of these relationship arcs.
Q: Do you have a favorite character or scene in either your novels? Could you tell us about it?
Kathryn: I still miss Marty Kandelbaum, the baker, whose car and doughnuts helped save Penelope Sparrow’s life. He believes in comfort food, love, and the unconditional support of and responsibility for people God has placed in his path, even when that becomes exceedingly difficult. He has a quiet, kind wisdom that surprised and delighted me.
I’ll be lucky if a character like him ever comes my way again. The closest may be André Burnett in my work-in-progress.
As for favorite scene, it has to be the dance that Penelope choreographs for her friend Angela in The Art of Falling. In that one scene, I had to tap my experience has dancer, choreographer, and dance critic.
I realize I am leaving out The Far End of Happy on my list of faves. I am incredibly proud of that novel, which, despite being written as fiction, feels incredibly true and important, but it’s hard to say anything about that day is a favorite, you know? If pressed, I’d say any scene involving Max, my cockapoo, who played himself. Despite trying circumstances that gave him PTSD for life, he came through it like a champ, and was a constant source of joy and emotional support for me until the end of his days.
Q: You spend a great deal of time giving back to the writing and reading communities. Why is this so important to you?
Kathryn: Actually, thank you for asking this question, as I have a score to settle.
Back in 2006 or so, when I ran for president of my local writers’ group for the second time (which we built from 75 to 150 members during my first presidency), I actually overheard someone in the back row say, “She’s certainly a doormat.”
He was 100% clueless—and no doubt, unpublished. Here is what I know, for sure:
The arts are crucial to our humanity.
Without volunteerism in the arts, the world would stop spinning and we’d all fly off.
If you want to live forever, mentor someone. They will never forget you.
Writers may write on their own, but they cannot be published, well, all on their own.
There is no better way to network (find critique partners, meet agents and editors, find published authors who might one day blurb your book) than to roll up your sleeves and volunteer.
I guess I’m not giving away much of a secret when I say I am a socially motivated person who will often do more for others than I would do for myself. Yet there is method to my madness. I would never hold another writer to a higher standard than I’d hold myself. This creates a very gratifying karmic loop. By helping others get better, I improve. It’s win-win-win, all the way down the line.
Q: I understand you are working on a third novel. Can you tell us more about it and when we can expect to see it one the shelves?
Kathryn: I am not writing this one under contract, so I have no publication date, nor do I know if it will ever get published. I do love it though, and have been writing it for four years. It had to go through a severe course correction at one point (It began its life as domestic suspense at the suggestion of my agent. She didn’t like it. I split from that agent and rewrote it in my psychological women’s fiction lane, found a new agent, went on submission, and pulled it to address consistent feedback from editors.).
I can now say with hands-on street cred that shifting a story’s genre will require rethinking every one of the tens of thousands of individual decisions that contribute to the reader’s accumulating understanding. (But no pressure, right?) In the end, we all must write to please ourselves. Otherwise, writing novels is just too hard to be sustainable.
I’m in the final days of getting ready to resubmit for agent feedback, so I hate to be too specific, but in its broadest sense, it is a story of a woman who seeks to reclaim her true nature after trauma, set within Nature’s own violent reclamation during a Northeastern ice storm. It is a love story grounded in place and belonging, in which trees play major characters.