There is turbulence in loss, a wild spinning of particles. There is a vacuum that is not an absence. It is full.” ~ from Carry the Sky
In Kate Gray’s debut novel, Carry the Sky, Taylor and Song are boarding school teachers pulled into the lives and in close proximity of two students, Kyle and Carla. What follows is a story of loss and grief, mourned relations, and the effects that actions–deliberate or not–have on those around us.
One of Bustle magazine’s 11 must-read books about high school, Carry the Sky also hit the charts on Amazon’s hot new releases for literary gay and lesbian fiction.
I’m honored to interview Kate Gray and thrilled to host a giveaway (thank you to Forest Avenue Press).
At the end of the post, leave a comment for a chance to win your own copy of Gray’s novel. The winner will be chosen on Tuesday, September 16th. Now, welcome Kate Gray!
CC: In CARRY THE SKY, we see both sides of grief: in Song, the desperate need for a logical explanation and in Taylor, the tactile experience where the “the wax smell of the boathouse” and the sharp feel of cornstalks, hitting and scraping, push or pull at heartbreak. Which of these characters–Taylor or Song–came to you first? Which one has stayed with you the most?
KG: Grief is like the crystal from a chandler. It takes your pain and projects it in many directions at once. Taylor and Song are both reactions I had inside me to the loss I experienced when I taught in a boarding school.
Song is the more logical and intellectual, and Taylor is the more visceral and associative. Carla is another, and she is all impulse. I’d say that Taylor came to me first because there is no logic to the accidental death of a friend, and her way of dealing with emotion through metaphor, sensory experience, and exercise is the way of coping that comes most naturally to me.
As Song says, “There is no science for this” when facing the horrible loss at the center of the book. I am more poet than physicist.
CC: Throughout your novel, Taylor and Song both take risks that change the course of their lives, sometimes for good and sometimes not. Writing itself is about taking risks. What was the greatest challenge you faced as you wrote this book?
KG: The greatest challenge come in re-entering the pain I lived and inventing the pain that motivated the characters to act in the ways they did. This type of literary fiction is dangerous because you try to reveal what you would like to hide, and you try to face what scares you in order to help others move their trauma. To give a specific example, Carla tells childhood stories of a sick, sexually-charged environment created by her father. In one scene her father invites her brother and her into a shower with the pretense of cooling off during a horribly humid day. That never happened to me, but I had to put myself there to imagine what she felt and did and how that experience affected her. I needed to wash myself after writing the details of scenes like that for fear that the terror would stay on my skin.
CC: I know you spent some time at Hedgebrook, and I’ve read a bit about the writers’ residency. But, I would love a first-hand account. How long did you stay? What insights did you gain? And, the fellowship? I imagine it was amazing.
KG: It was heaven. In 1999 I was awarded a 3-week residency at Hedgebrook, which is a women’s retreat center on Whidbey Island, WA. It can accommodate 6 writers at a time, each of whom is given her own cottage, which was hand-built by master craftsmen, each designed to give the writer a variety of spaces in which to write, like a window seat, a desk, a loft, a couch, an alcove. The only work you are allowed to do is to write, and to carry your own wood and build your own fire in the wood stoves. You are on your own during the day, but in the evening, you migrate to the farmhouse where there is a gorgeous meal prepared for you, much of the makings harvested from the ample gardens. The cook joins you at the table, and you are not allowed to clear or clean your dishes. You are to do no work besides writing.
During that residency, I met some of the most powerful and diverse writers I’ve ever known. Hannah Tinti, the author of The Good Thief, and co-founder of One Story, has become one of my closest friends.
Hedgebrook allowed me to take myself seriously, gave me the time and space and permission to write. Its commitment to the diversity and richness of women’s voices from around the world is an inspiration to all organizations that promote social justice.
CC: What are you reading these days?
KG: Carter Sickels, in his award-winning novel, An Evening Hour, tells his story through the eyes of a young man who is trapped by poverty and his loyalty to his grandmother and the land they live on. The story reveals the rape of West Virginia by coal companies. In the novel the companies level mountain ranges, poison land and water, and swindle communities. While the narrator is deeply flawed, it is his decency and generosity toward the most isolated and destitute in his community that redeem him. The writing captures the complexity of characters and economics, the choices made and the ones imposed.
CC: In your acknowledgments, you also mention your writing group, saying “If I could show you what community means….” What’s one lesson you’ve learned in critique that has stayed with you through publication of this book?
KG: I was referring to a loose community of writers, called the Dangerous Writers. This group was started by Tom Spanbauer, author of The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon, and its purpose was to provide a loving and supportive environment for writers to tell the hard stories. Tom and his fellow teachers, Stevan Allred and Joanna Rose, developed a lexicon and a number of guiding principles. Most of the writing was first person. I ended up working on the novel with Stevan and Joanna at something they now call The Pinewood Table, which is a weekly writing group to which each participant brings at most 6 pages to read and discuss. One of the principles was to “hide the I.” When writing in first person, the reader will get bored if every sentence begins the same way, especially if the subject is always “I.” One of the ways to avoid that repetition and monotony is to try to start the sentence with the direct object or predicate. Essentially, flipping the usual syntax makes for much more interesting sentences and can lead to a distinct voice.
Rowing for years, Kate Gray coached crew and taught in an East Coast boarding school at the start of her teaching career. Her debut novel, Carry the Sky (2014) takes an unblinking look at bullying. Now after more than 20 years teaching at a community college in Oregon, Kate tends her students’ stories. Her first full-length book of poems, Another Sunset We Survive (2007) was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award and followed chapbooks, Bone-Knowing (2006), winner of the Gertrude Press Poetry Prize and Where She Goes (2000), winner of the Blue Light Chapbook Prize. Over the years she’s been awarded residencies at Hedgebrook, Norcroft, and Soapstone, and a fellowship from the Oregon Literary Arts. Her poetry and essays have been nominated for Pushcart prizes. She and her partner live in a purple house in Portland, Oregon with their sidekick, Rafi, a very patient dog.
Drop your name in the comments for a chance to win a copy of Carry the Sky. (winner to be chosen on Tuesday, September 16th).Then, click on over to Kate Gray’s website and read more about her work.