From Reader to Writer: Finding Out What to Say [Q&A]

This is a Q&A with Jill Kandel. 

How did you get into writing? When did you do your first writing? When was your first serious writing? 

I grew up loving to read. Books were magical to me. I’m not sure that I really understood writers were real people or that writing could be a profession. I went into nursing as a young adult, married a man from the Netherlands, moved to Zambia, and had children. But throughout all of those years, I read voraciously and widely. I was an author-in-the-making and didn’t know it yet. 1

I started writing when I was forty years old because I had a son who couldn’t read. He had severe learning disabilities and by the age of ten, he was embarrassed at all The Cat and the Hat books he was struggling through. He called them “baby books.” I began to write stories for him. I knew every word and syllable and vowel combination that he could or could not read.

I joined a writing club and one of the writers said he’d like to hear more about my life in Africa, so I began to write about those six years. I’d get up at 5:00 a.m. and write till 9:00 a.m. and then my children and life would take over. I wrote six days a week, four hours a day. Early mornings were my only alone time. I’d wake up, drink coffee, and write.

Where did you learn the craft of writing? Whether formally or inspiration-ally. 

As my writing grew more serious, I went online and researched various ways to study—MFA, Workshops, Conferences, Retreats—and chose choose a creative nonfiction workshop that Robin Hemley, head of the U. of Iowa Workshop, was teaching. I attended and studied writing like my life depended upon it. I went home motivated and excited and spent the next year reading every book and literary journal he told me about.

Each year after that I’d choose one workshop or conference or retreat to attend. I’d take the classes and use them as a springboard for what I studied and wrote in the coming year.

Various conferences I’ve attended over the years include the Northwoods Writers Conference at the U. of Bemidji, AWP multiple times. Rainer Writer’s Workshop, Collegeville Institute Writing Workshop, NonfictioNOW, and the Nonfiction Writers Conference Pittsburgh.

Going to all of these events really encouraged me. It also formed friendships and working relationships with writers, journals, and people in my field. A lot of the writing life consist of the tenacity to just keep on writing. Going to conferences, hearing other writer’s stories of triumph and woe, nudged me to continue.

Why did you feel a writer’s group was so essential? 

Other than reading and writing, one of the best things a writer can do is to find other writers and form working friendships. Becoming comfortable with other people critiquing your work is essential. Opening up your writing to a writing group or writing friend will make your writing stronger. This back and forth helps a writer let go of the work in a good
way. When I first started writing, I thought somehow since the words were written down they were almost sacrosanct.
3This is a beginner’s mistake. It is not easy to have your work critiqued. But when a writer friend tells me a paragraph or page isn’t working for them, I have the opportunity to make it better. Having another writer read my writing in progress is a real gift.

The first writer’s group I was in had one fiction, one poetry, one devotional, one horror and one creative nonfiction writer. The first time I read a story to them, my hands and voice shook and I was scared to death. It was a beginning. I learned to trust my own writing. I learned to trust their input. I learned when to listen and when to disagree. It pushed and stretched my writing in a way that I could not have done by myself.

Living in Fargo, when you found no pre-established writer’s groups, you organized one yourself. What was that process like? How have writing groups in general, or the Fargo one in particular, helped you and your writing? 

When I moved to Fargo, I was very surprised that I couldn’t find a writers group. After a couple of frustrating years, I really missed my old group, so I started asking around and came up with nothing. But I kept my ears open. One day, at my daughter’s ballet class, another mother said in passing that she was a writer. “What!?” That was the beginning of a very small group. She knew another writer. We got together for a year with a group that fluctuated wildly. Then the strangest thing happened. I attended the AWP Conference in Minneapolis and walked out of a room and literally ran into a woman. We excused ourselves and I asked where she was from. “North Dakota,” she answered. “Where in North Dakota,” I asked. She replied, “Fargo.” AWP has 20,000 people who attend it. And I’d ran into a woman from Fargo! It was meant to be. Selina joined the writing group and we somehow solidified. Our group, of five women, meets every other week at a local coffee shop. We do writing prompts, talk about our writing lives, and bring new material to read out loud and critique. It’s encouraging, practical, raucous and a lot of fun.

What about living overseas fueled your writing so powerfully? 

I had no idea when I moved to Zambia how it would change my life. It was all rather exotic and exciting. I was young and naïve and a newly-wed, married to a man from another country. I thought living in a village would be a cinch.

It was a ten-hour canoe ride to the nearest town. For the first nine months, we lived in Zambia, we didn’t have a house—just a room in a hotel. 5I was overwhelmed with culture shock, survival, finding food, cooking, washing, disease. There was no phone or Internet. How can anyone be prepared for that kind of isolation?

Zambia took away my language. There were five languages spoken in Kalabo District: SiLozi, Luvale, Nyengo, Mbunda, and Nkoya. I couldn’t tell the five of them apart. I was living in a village where the act of talking and communicating was a daily struggle. When you lose the ability to communicate with those living around you—really communicate—there is a sense of loss and isolation. And something odd happens: when you stop talking, you stop hearing yourself, too. You forget who you are.

7When we moved back to America, I wanted to forget Zambia. I wanted to forget the heat and the isolation, the deaths we’d seen, the poverty, and hunger, and war. I wanted to forget the sorrow. I wanted it to all go away. But those six years were a big silence in my life and what I really needed was to understand them. I needed to place words into the void I’d been living in. Writing gave me a way to take away the silence.

When writing about different cultures, different people, and different experiences in general from your own, how do you ensure you’re representing things correctly? 

I think you represent things correctly by focusing on your own story. I’m not African or Zambian or black. But I did live in Zambia for six years. I focused on my story, from the view point of an expatriate. Having said that, I also did a lot of research on Zambian culture and language and heritage. I wanted to get my facts right. I read through my journals and letters. I wrote to other people who had lived in Zambia with us and asked them questions. I talked with my husband. He was there, too. He often helped with agricultural or geographical facts that I didn’t remember.

For someone who is inspired by your work and similar work that focuses on experiences in other locations or traveling, but doesn’t have the resources to truly travel, what would you recommend? How can people engage in similar ways to familiar locations?

Every place is foreign to someone whose never been there. My youngest daughter sometimes complains, “Kris and Joren were born in Zambia! Ben lived in Indonesia! And me? Big whoop. I live in Fargo!” But Fargo, to say someone who lives in Hawaii, is a foreign place. You can write culture, language, landscape, local customs into your work no matter where you live.

John Ruskin said, “You cannot learn to love art, unless you first love what art mirrors.” It’s such a meaningful quote. Fall in love with the vast and astounding part of the globe that you are occupying. And when you have fallen in love enough that it haunts you, then create the art needed to share your experience with others.

In your blog, you once wrote about “saying goodbye” to your first book So Many Africas to focus on writing your second book instead. What brought you to that point? Since then, what has been the result of that decision? 

After my book came out, I spent one and a half years with a focus on promoting it. I don’t know how many events I did. Hundreds. I did interviews on radio and TV, guest blog post, my own weekly blogging, library events, book club events, women’s events, interviews with lit. journals. After hearing myself speak about my book for over a year, I got tired of my own voice. After that much time and investment, I was bored to be honest.

I felt a deep need to move on. To create again. To focus on my own writing and not on the going out and being with people. I loved the events and interaction with readers. It was exciting and very touching. But, I also got tired of it. During that time, I was working on an incomplete first draft of a next book. And I felt an urgency to stop talking, and start writing more.

Right now, I’m really close to completing the first full draft of that manuscript. The main story is about my father-in-law, Izaak. I’m exploring three threads: Izaak’s life as a young boy growing up in Nazi Occupied Netherlands during WWII, my tumultuous relationship with him, and his choice of euthanasia at the end of his life.

I spent six weeks in the Netherlands this past summer, doing WWII research, family history research and just absorbing the culture. It feels fantastic to be ‘on the hunt.’ To be writing. I’m driven by curiosity. I love to write about what I don’t understand. The project is satisfying intellectually and emotionally as well. I’m finding answers to my own questions and I’m playing with words. It’s a great combination. It makes me feel happy and free.

Rather recently, you had an essay published in The Magic of Memoir. What was it like to see your writing become a tangible object? 

Having an essay or book published is a lot like getting a ribbon at the end of a race. It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work. It’s an encouragement to keep on with the hard, quiet work behind the scenes that no one knows about except yourself. It’s a kind of sweet recognition. It’s also very short-lived. The next day, you wake up, and the page is white. And empty. And it’s time to go to work. Writing, in a sense, is never done. You don’t arrive at it. You are constantly called to create again, to create more. The ribbon is fun. Throw a party! Do a little dance. And then, sit yourself back down in your chair. And write.

For anyone who hasn’t had that moment yet, but longs to, what would your advice or message be? 

My advice is twofold. One: learn to write well. Learn the craft to the best of your ability. And then, live your life and find what it is that you need to say. As Barbara Kingsolver said, “Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.”

Jill Kandel’s book, So Many Africas: Six Years in a Zambian Village won both the 2014 Autumn House Nonfiction Prize and the Sarton Women’s Literary Award. Her work has been anthologized The Magic of Memoir, 2016 (She Writes Press), Best Spiritual Writing 2012(Penguin Books) and in Becoming: What Makes a Woman (University of Nebraska, 2012).  Her essays have been published in many literary journals including The Missouri Review, Gettysburg Review, Brevity, River Teeth, Pinch, and Image.

You can view a two-minute book trailer on her website where she blogs about writing, creative living and Writing In-Between Cultures.


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