with Katherine O’Hara
Q1: When did you start writing and first influences?
Katherine: When I was a kid, my mama picked me up from school and brought me to work with her. She gave me printer paper and some highlighters, told me to draw. I wrote stories to go along with the pictures. I think the first story was about a bunny who befriends a magical carrot. My mama still has it in the attic somewhere.
Q2: Who are your biggest influences today?
Katherine: My influences are constantly expanding, but I’ve recently been drawn to Jesmyn Ward, Meg Day, Margaret Renkl, and Ashleigh Bryant Phillips. Narrowing this list down to reflect my current moment was difficult. I laughed at myself, plopping a tall stack of books on the living room floor as I tried to decide how to answer this question. My community of influences is always growing. I’m equally as excited about all of the writers and their projects that inspire me now as I am about the ones that will inspire me in the future.
Q3: Any pivotal moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
Katherine: I think there’s the initial childike wonder about writing. I was an avid reader as a kid and loved to create stories with my friends. That wonder reached a turning point, at least for me, as I got older. It wasn’t until I started my MFA that this wonder shifted into a desire to want to develop writing into a practice. This understanding that the act of writing is a choice, how we must actively choose throughout our lives to come back to this craft. I think much of the motivation to be a writer comes to me most from always wanting to learn from others and my fascination about one’s outlook on the world. I’m always in search of connection. And writing is my way of filling in the gaps.
Building my philosophy no longer as someone who writes but as a writer, comes from the core of the literary tradition, but not so much in terms of form or techniques we choose to make in our work. My mentor Melody Moezzi states in her memoir The Rumi Prescription, “writing isn’t about seeking wealth or approval. It was about having something to say and saying it. Eventually, I realized that writing was my way of making sense of the world and doing my part to change it.”
Ultimately, I find it important to consider where writing stands within the philosophical tradition, which is at the core of writing: how we write to make sense of the world and do our part to change it.
Q4: Who has helped you most with writing?
I received my MFA and BFA from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. And my mentors there were instrumental in not only helping me develop my writing but also develop my belief in myself. Rebecca Lee, Melissa Crowe, Anna Lena Phillips Bell, Clyde Edgerton, Melody Moezzi, KaToya Ellis Fleming, Emily Smith, Nina de Gramont, I could go on and list the entire department. Each of them have made me a better writer, a better person, a better publishing professional. The same can be said for my family and friends, writers and nonwriters alike, and my Tin House Workshop cohort. I am grateful for the ways all of them shape my life.
It wasn’t until taking Anna Lena and Melissa’s poetry workshops that I felt I could call myself a poet. I’m learning to trust the instinct that I’m capable while also acknowledging I have room to grow. I like to consider how character growth through internalized perception carries plot. How a character can move from a catalytic event to then reshaping themselves. Confessional poetry has been a significant outlet in allowing me to make an understanding of my life and the world around me.
Q5: Where did you grow up and how did that influence your writing & did any travels away from home influence your work?
I grew up in rural North Carolina and much of my writing centers around reimagining the south. My mother grew up in rural Louisiana and both her experience and my own shaped my novel manuscript that I wrote during my MFA. I am also passionate as an editor about championing for work that emphasizes diversity and equity and combats stereotypes of the south.
I went to Cankton, Louisiana with my mama in the summer of 2019 to visit my great grandparents’ land on behalf of my manuscript. Traveling caused me to learn to differentiate observation for observation sake vs. observation that is painted by experience. My characters live within the specificity of my origins and my family’s traditions. I wrote letters to my great aunt Elaine Leger and Tim Savoy; both helped shape this manuscript’s heart.
The poems I’ve published as of late are from this manuscript. Using Cajun phrases from Calcasieu and St. Landry Parish was incredibly important to me. I wanted to carry the cultural tradition in this manuscript not only by incorporating the Cajun dishes I grew up with and the place but also having my characters navigate bilingualism similar to my mama’s experience growing up.
Poetry more than any other form taught me what it means to take ownership of my work. Form, image density, rhythm are important elements to me in all genre forms. Experimenting in this way has been crucial to this project and to all my others, poems and prose alike.
Q6: What do you consider your most meaningful work you’ve done creatively so far to you?
Katherine: My novel manuscript was the first time I wrote something of that length. I came into the MFA program as a flash fiction writer, feeling as if a novel was impossible for me to write—let alone a novel that takes a hybrid form and incorporates poems. Discovering my voice as a writer had to do much in part by learning to accept myself. My manuscript is influenced by my insecurities with faith, anxiety, and love in the shape of grief. I love the novel form now. And the connections this manuscript holds to my life and my mother’s family is significantly important to me.
Q7: Favorite activities to relax?
Katherine: Relaxing is difficult for me. I feel like my brain is always spinning with a different worry. This is what helps slow it down: snuggling with my dog, walking around the neighborhood, watching the birds in the bird feeder, and hugs from someone I love.
Q8: What is a favorite line/stanza from a poem of yours or others?
Katherine: One of my favorite quotes is from Garth Greenwall in an essay he wrote for Harpers in discussion on “Making Meaning” in a work. He states, “what I value in all the art I love: not arguments and conclusions, not a message, but the shapes a mind makes as it struggles to make meaning from a life.”
This struggle to make meaning from a life, to me, is what brings all narrative and experimental forms together. This feels like the heart of writing to me.
Q9: Any recent or forthcoming projects that you’d like to promote?
Katherine: I’m currently returning to my novel manuscript and revising, and I hope to send it out into the world for agency consideration this year. I’m incredibly honored to hold my mentors’ feedback as the novel continues to evolve. If you’d like to keep up on the journey, you can follow me on Twitter @katherineggrace.
I’ve recently been published in Artemis Journal: a journal publishing poetry and art from the Blue Ridge Mountains. You can find my poem in the 2021 issue here: https://artemisjournal.org/store/
If you’re curious about my novel manuscript, you can read a synopsis here:
Based in Cankton, Louisiana, where my family is from, the novel exists in a town of only five hundred people where one’s roots play an important part in how these characters are a product of their social forces. Place and its cultural components amplify themes that philosophize faith, grief, and romantic relationships.
Between Two Houses follows two families: the Kibodeaux family through the perspectives of Lyla (the eldest daughter), Ellie (her mother), and the Guidry family through the perspective of Ophelia (the Kibodeaux’s next-door neighbor). When death unravels one family and separation another, Lyla, Ellie, and Ophelia consider whether reflecting on the past makes one stagnant or secure and how the departed’s flaws are revoked or amplified in the grieving process. In light of her father’s decline, Lyla stays home to support the family while her younger sister leaves town without warning. After his passing, Lyla must come to terms with the past she holds on to, her relationship with her sister, and what it means to pray as a non-religious individual. Ellie tries to sort through her superstitions and rituals, holding on to her God much to her daughter’s confusion. Next door, Ophelia contemplates how her parents’ relationship, and their inevitable divorce, influences how and who she loves. The three women will ultimately have to make choices that test where their loyalties lie to themselves.
In discussing topics such as sharecropping, Cajun pastimes, religious superstition, the Cajun language, language politics/bilingualism, and significance of a home cooked meal, I hope to do justice to the Cajun community and give readers a look into not only Louisiana as place but Louisiana as literary, as culture, as wondrous, beloved, pained.