Feb 16, 2010

Interview with Kristin Bair O'Keeffe, author

Welcome, Kristin, and thanks for visiting!

Q: Can you tell us what inspired you to write your debut novel, Thirsty? (link to review)

Kristin: Two things: my family history with domestic violence and my family connection to the steel industry. I grew up in a suburb of Pittsburgh, and my maternal grandparents lived just down the road a bit in Clairton, one of Pittsburgh’s most dynamic steel communities. In the 1960s and 1970s, I spent a lot of time at their house with the smokestacks of the mills bearing down and barges hauling steel along the Monongahela River. My grandfather and great uncles worked in the steel mills so it was a big part of our family story. When the steel industry collapsed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, so did Pittsburgh’s steel communities. At that point, the storyteller in me jumped up and said, “Ooohh, there’s something to be told here.”

Before I wrote fiction, I wrote poetry. As an undergraduate at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, I wrote and published “Crumbling Steeples,” a poem about how the crash of Pittsburgh’s steel industry affected its steel communities (and more specifically, my grandfather). After I wrote it, I thought I was done writing about Pittsburgh and steel. Obviously I was wrong; the poem was just the beginning.

Q: When did you write the book, and how much research went into it?

Kristin: I wrote the first full draft of Thirsty during graduate school at Columbia College Chicago in the 1990s, and although I am definitely not a historian or a steel-making specialist, it was very important that I get the details right (fingers crossed). I did a heck of a lot of research at the Harold Washington Library Center on State Street in downtown Chicago.

Q: Which writers have influenced you the most?

Kristin: Here’s a sampling, though there are many more:

• for language, rhythm, and soul: Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez

• for writing about women’s lives in significant ways: Alice Walker and Toni Morrison
• for thinking like me: Dr. Seuss and Amy Krouse Rosenthal
• for keeping me centered: Thich Nhat Han and Pema Chodron• for writing inspiration: Natalie Goldberg and Anne Lamott

Q: Are you planning another book or any other work?

Kristin: Absolutely. I’ve got two big projects on my plate right now:

a. a memoir about falling in love with an Irishman, marrying him (um, rather quickly), moving to China, and becoming a mom.

b. a second novel...which is wildly different than Thirsty

Q: Can you tell us about your work in Shanghai?

Kristin: You know, living in China is this wonderful, kooky, frustrating, thrilling, eye-opening experience. When I moved here in 2006, I didn’t know much about Chinese culture and I didn’t speak a word of Mandarin. For a lot of people, that kind of change is overwhelming. For me, it was inspiring. I love being nudged (pushed/shoved) out of my comfort zone, plunked down into a culture about which I know little or nothing, and forced to reexamine who I am and how I define myself in the world.

The good news after almost four years in China?

I’ve got enough material to write about for a lifetime.

Q: Is there anything else you would like readers to know?

Kristin: I love to hear about writers’ quirks. My own? As a writer, I’m obsessed with the rhythm and sound of every single word in every single sentence I put on a page. I read everything out loud (including this guest blog post)…over and over again; if I hear a clunker word, I replace it, and then I read the entire piece out loud again.

Of course, if you’re thinking I only do this in the privacy of my own office, you’re dead wrong. I read my work out loud in coffee shops, book stores, airports…pretty much any place they’ll allow me to plop down with my computer and work.

Thanks for sharing your experiences and writing tips with us, Kristin. Good luck with your memoir and your next novel!

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe’s debut novel Thirsty (Swallow Press, 2009) tells the story of one woman’s unusual journey through an abusive marriage, set against the backdrop of a Pittsburgh steel community at the turn of the twentieth century. Her work has been published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Poets & Writers Magazine, San Diego Family Magazine, The Baltimore Review, The Gettysburg Review, and many other publications. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago and has been teaching writing for almost fifteen years. Kristin lives in Shanghai, China, with her husband and daughter.

 If you’d like to learn more, visit http://www.thirstythenovel.com/ and her blog “My Beautiful, Far-Flung Life” at http://www.kristinbairokeeffeblog.com/.You can also follow her on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kbairokeeffe and friend her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Kristin.Bair.OKeeffe.

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  1. Great interview! I love reading about her inspirations; Natalie Goldberg is so great for motivation and inspiration and it doesn't get any better than Marquez for literary writing. I'm going to have to check her out if those are her influences!

  2. Marie: Marquez is a favorite of mine too. Very good literary influences.

  3. I love that you read your book out loud regardless of the setting! That's awesome! My kids would have me locked up :)

  4. "As a writer, I’m obsessed with the rhythm and sound of every single word in every single sentence I put on a page." <--- this is definitely my favorite part of the interview. I have noticed, while reading, that the book sounded beautiful; so this is the reason why :)

  5. Great interview-it will be interesting to read her thoughts on Shanghai-I wonder if she likes Lisa See's novel on Shanghai

  6. Thanks for the nice interview. I'm glad to have a chance to get to know Kristin a bit better.

  7. Great interview. I have a friend who moved back to Shanghai for the second time and she loves it. And I love the visual of Kristin reading her work out loud in a coffee shop :)

  8. Kristin, Mel and stacybuckeye: I'm sure that Shanghai is the place to be to see and experience new things. If you're interested, here's a blog dedicated to life in Shanghai- She in China.


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