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In our interview with Moses, she shared some interesting facts about herself:
"I'm a seventh-generation Californian, and my great-great-grandmother, great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, daughter, and myself were all born in San Francisco -- my mother, daughter, and myself all at the same hospital."
"I decided I would be a writer when I was four years old, while sitting at my mother's feet as she sewed on her mother's old Singer sewing machine and told family stories with her mother and sisters (my grandmother and aunts). As little snips of fabric snowed down on me and I listened -- unobserved -- to the stories told by the women in my family, I suddenly realized that's all I wanted to do with my life: to tell stories."
"I have never been to a writing workshop, retreat, or residency program. The only writing class I ever took was as a sophomore in college, and I ended up dropping out of school for the semester and getting an Incomplete for the class. After college graduation I talked my way into a job as an editor at a small literary trade publishing house called North Point Press in Berkeley, California: My strategy was to learn to write, surreptitiously, by working with 'real' writers. I published my first short story when I was 23; the story was part of a fiction competition and was published with my photograph. Someone recognized me in the grocery store and I was so appalled to have my imagination made so public and personal that I didn't submit another piece of fiction to a publisher until Wintering, 14 years later."
"Though childhood convinced me that I was going to be a writer, motherhood is what gave me my subject. I don't think I had anything worth writing about until I started re-experiencing the world through the eyes of my children; it is the assembly of the self -- through childhood, through relationships with other people, through parenthood -- that fascinates me as a writer as well as a reader."
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In the spring of 2003, Kate Moses took some time out to answer our questions.
What was the book that most influenced your life -- and why?
The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. This was the first "adult" book that I ever read. I was 12 years old, and though I had decided by the age of 4 that I wanted to be a writer -- a "storyteller" is how I thought of it then -- it wasn't until I read The Yearling that I felt the imprint of an author's voice and heart and conscience on the story being told. The Yearling was my first exposure to the idea of a writer's craft: that a story is told through a writer's imagining of it, that the story didn't merely exist as a complete and separate entity.
As I read, I could detect how Mrs. Rawlings got inside the hearts and minds of each of her characters, and that they came alive, with all their frailties and dreams and losses, through her. Not only did the story of Jody and his love for his fawn, for his suffering parents and neighbors, lift off the pages for me, but so did their author. This, I realized for the first time, is what a genuine writer can do --- put blood in the veins of characters who could not exist without her, and transmit them, feeling and alive, to a reader, and all of it through words. Many years later it sank in that this literary epiphany was given to me by a woman writer, making this book and what it means to me all the sweeter.
What are your ten favorite books -- and why?
Quite painful to limit such a list to ten! But these are books without which my life would be far more cramped and small; all of them sharing the quality of the writer's gift for capturing -- what it is to be human -- through words. It is the interior life of human beings that most haunts me and captivates me in these books, of learning to know -- or not -- the self:
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy -- Tolstoy was a master of apprehending the inner lives and motivations and mysteries of other people, and of expressing the fleeting nature of accord in human relationships. Perhaps there is no better novel ever written about the strangeness of marriage or the wearisomeness of one's own inner conflicts.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert -- I love Madame Bovary's ingenious play-within-a-play quality -- Flaubert's wit and humor and irony all underscoring the cloudy territory between reality and fiction in our prosaic, yearning lives. There's something eerily contemporary about Emma's fantasy life, even her shop-till-you-drop remedy for emotional vacuity.
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne -- The moral ambiguities of The Scarlet Letter -- Hester's complicated embrace of her punishment, her lavish and defiant self-expression in tandem with her belief that "the world's law was no law for her mind" -- keep this novel vigorously alive for me. And Little Pearl may be one of the most beguiling, intuitive child characters in all of English literature.
The Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath -- It's thrilling to trace the trajectory of artistic growth through these poems, and to see Plath's unique ability to express the palpable rawness of emotion and cultural and personal frustration through her diamond-edged formal training. The Collected Poems embody the notion that once you know the rules, you are set free -- if only artistically -- to break them.
A Death in the Family by James Agee -- This heartbreakingly beautiful book is all elegy: for the loss of innocence, for the loss of life, for clarity, distilled into images more poetry than prose: a young mother who has just learned her husband has died in a car accident looks down at the bubbles rising in a warming tea kettle and wonders what that water "might possibly be good for."
Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey -- A huge, rambling, American saga about the failures and strengths of individualism, Ken Kesey's true masterwork (far beyond One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in my opinion, and in many others') carries the weight of its poetic urgency and its delicately drawn, aching family disappointments.
Black Tickets by Jayne Anne Phillips -- This is the book of short stories that introduced Jayne Anne Phillips, whose writerly attention is as lapidarian and penetrating and surgical as her characters are elusive and mysteriously tender. I never tire of reading Jayne Anne Phillips; her work fills me with awe and respectful envy.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf: No one can say it better than the author -- "how life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach."
The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: My heart's favorite. You can hear the wing beat of cranes forever after reading this book.
The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty: A novel of sorrowful, reluctant introspection, in which the optimist's daughter of the title has to peel back her life's grief layer by layer to remove herself from the category of "those who never know the meaning of what has happened to them."
The Spirit of the Beehive -- a haunting, atmospheric Spanish film by Victor Erice. Set in a remote Spanish village in the postCivil War 1940s, it tells the story of two little sisters who watch a traveling film show of Boris Karloff's Frankenstein and then find the film mirrored by their lives when they discover a fugitive Republican sympathizer hiding in a deserted barn near their house. It is an allegory for the crippling effect of the Civil War and Franco's dictatorship, and an evocation of the fantastical, dreamlike imagination of children. Does the spirit die? Are monsters real? This film beautifully, quietly asks those questions.
My musical knowledge is crude at best and my taste eclectic: right now I'm listening to Norah Jones, Bach's suites for cello played by Pablo Casals, Bix Beiderbecke, Django Reinhardt, a Berkeley quartet called Baguette Quartette that plays Parisian cafe music, and Astor Piazzolla. I've told my children that my single ambition as a mother is that one of them learn to play the harmonica.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
Mary Rakow's first novel, The Memory Room -- I'm reading it now on my own, and I would love to have other readers to talk with about the questions it raises regarding faith in the face of evil, about the value of art and language, about the unresolvable nature of cruelty and senseless loss despite our culture that seems to demand, more and more, the immediacy of "the healing process."
What are your favorite books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I tend to shy away from giving fiction as gifts; fiction is as personal a taste as perfume. But as an avid reader and supporter of fiction I have begun to give away a magazine called The Readerville Journal, which is as lively and perceptive a conversation about fiction and books in general as can be had right now in this country.
There is a handful of books I turn back to time and again as gifts: Beth Kephart's A Slant of Sun, which is a gorgeous memoir about motherhood and empathy; poet Killarney Clary's first collection, By Me, by Any, Can and Can't Be Done, one of my all-time favorite books of poetry; the Frances the Badger children's books by Russell Hoban -- the most re-readable, sly, ironic children's books on the planet; and yes, three fiction titles: Denis Johnson's short story collection, Jesus' Son, Susan Straight's latest, compassionate novel, Highwire Moon, and anything by Jayne Anne Phillips.
Who are your favorite writers, and what makes their writing special?
My favorite writers are those who are as fascinated as I am with the quirks and self-delusions and epiphanies of the human heart --- writers who eavesdrop on the conversations of strangers, who get caught memorizing the faces of people in waiting rooms or at their family's dinner table, whose peripheral memories of people feel like a savings account. I gravitate to writers who are forever curious about people, but whose curiosity moves at oblique angles. I love a writer who can tell a good story, but I want the people in the story to have particularity. Denis Johnson, Susan Straight, Jayne Anne Phillips, Eudora Welty, Alice Munro, Tim Winton, Raymond Carver, Nadine Gordimer, Evan Connell, Joanna Scott, David Foster Wallace: these are some of the writers who continue to surprise me with the immediacy of their understanding of people.
What are you working on now?
Two book projects I'm working on simultaneously: the first is a sequel to the Mothers Who Think anthology, which my coeditor, Camille Peri, and I are in the beginning stages of organizing. The last three years have brought some profound and profoundly painful issues into the arena of motherhood and family life in America, and this collection will reflect those issues, through all-original essays by women writers who are also mothers.
The second project is my next novel, which is set in a small town on the coast of California during 1989, a year of revolutions and upheavals: the Tiananmen Square massacre, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Loma Prieta earthquake, the end of the Ceaucescu regime in Romania. The novel is titled We Think the World of You.
What else do you want your readers to know? Any hobbies or favorite pastimes you'd like to tell us about?
I probably should have a hobby, but I don't! I spend all of my time with my family -- my 14-year-old son, Zachary, 6-year-old daughter, Celeste, and husband, Gary Kamiya, who is a journalist and executive editor of Salon.com -- or writing, or thinking about what I'm going to write, or complaining that I have no time to read.
Actually, that's not exactly true: I spend lots of time cleaning up after my family, including our pets, a field spaniel puppy and two calico cats and two unexciting but unkillable goldfish; I fret and I bake; and I try to keep myself from fretting and baking and cleaning by taking our puppy, Fannie (after Ebenezer Scrooge's younger sister), for a run every morning along the majestic beachhead below the Golden Gate Bridge. Actually, I bake more than most people breathe.
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