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Meet the WritersImage of Kris Holloway
Kris Holloway
Kris Holloway served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali, West Africa from 1989 - 1991, where she met her husband John Bidwell. She holds a M.P.H. from the University of Michigan where she focused her research on maternal and child health. She has used her unique background in writing, public health, and development to further the mission of numerous non-profits and educational institutions including Planned Parenthood, the Greenbelt Movement International, the Western Massachusetts Center for Healthy Communities, the University of Michigan, and Springfield College. She currently works with the National Priorities Project, a non-profit organization offering citizens and community groups the tools to shape federal budget and policy priorities that promote social and economic justice.

Kris is also involved with fundraising and strategic planning for Clinique Monique, a rural clinic in Mali. A percentage of proceeds from book sales help to fund this growing health center. She is a confirmed Francophile, loves chocolate, and sits on a physio ball while at her computer. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts with John and their two sons (both born at home with midwives).

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Good to Know
Some fun and fascinating outtakes from our interview with Holloway:

"I descend from an illustrious line of Swedish pig butchers."

"I love dancing and will wiggle my derriere at the slightest provocation."

"My husband John and I got engaged on the Nile River after finishing our Peace Corps service."

"I love playing games. Traditional games like Monopoly and Scrabble, card games as well as new games, like Apples to Apples, True Colors, and Cranium."

"There's a couple of inspirational sayings that I keep where I can read them: "If you asked me what I came into this world to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud." And one by Charlie Parker "If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn."

"I'm a runner and would travel on foot everywhere if time wasn't an issue."

"Bumper stickers on my 2002 MPV mini-van: Remember, pillage first, then burn; Queen without a Country; Keep the Earth clean - It's not Uranus!; The road to health is paved with good intestines.

"I have two tattoos (one for each of our children) and would get my whole body covered in my favorite images (despite not having any more children) if my husband didn't stop me."

"I love polka music -- not enough to buy it -- but enough to not turn the dial. It's so happy."

"I don't like being put in a box. I was a ‘rock head' (environmental science major with a penchant for geology) in college, hung with the acting crowd, and belonged to a sorority."

"I drink organic, freshly ground coffee and also hanker for gas station sludge with Cremora."

"I find medical technology fascinating and fabulous, and had our children born at home with lay midwives."

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In the spring of 2007, Kris Holloway took some time to answer some of our questions about her favorite books, authors, and interests:

I would have to say Anne Fadiman's book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. Anne has a journalist's eye for accuracy, and knows when to push further and when to pull back. There is so much detail and history in this book, and yet I couldn't put down (books with too much of either make me sleepy). The story of this very sick Hmong child and her family's journey through the U.S. medical system is told with love and respect, no hubris or judgment. It also had just the right dose of medical terminology and words in Hmong. The book showed me that it's possible to offer a window into another culture and bring us to care.

What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?

  • So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba -- Written by a Senegalese woman and pioneer of women's rights, this book allowed me into an African woman's life from the inside.

  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote -- When I read it, I always feel like I'm witnessing history in the making.

  • Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire -- It taught me how social change happens, and how education/words/language can be used as tools of oppression or tools of freedom.

  • A Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks -- I've never again thought about the Black Plague without picturing the sweet and brave Anna.

  • The Hours by Michael Cunningham -- The gorgeous weaving of three women's stories (one of whom is Virginia Woolf) into one. Each voice is distinct. A beautiful read.

  • Where There is No Doctor by David Werner -- An indispensable guide, written for health workers and lay people in places without medical personnel.

  • Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker -- Not as well known as The Color Purple, but equally powerful. A story about female genital cutting and the choices we face as women.

  • The Grey King by Susan Cooper -- One of my favorite books as a child. Set in the Welsh Hills, a boy recovering from great illness discovers he has a role in the great battle between dark and light. Thrilling to read.

  • The Call of the Wild by Jack London -- A great one for dog lovers. This story of a dog that must survive in civilization and in the wildness always reminds me of how thin the membrane is between these worlds.

  • Our Bodies, Ourselves by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective -- Essential to the understanding of women's health. No woman should be without it!

    What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
    Most of the films that I see are ones that my kids want to see (my most recent films seen at the theater were Ghostrider, Night at the Museum, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Happy Feet -- highly recommended!) Our family has enjoyed Shrek, The Incredibles, and Yellow Submarine more times than I can count. Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Young Frankenstein rank as movies that have the most oft-repeated phrases in our family. Guilty admission: there's a soft spot in my heart for Bean. Musical classics such as Singing in the Rain, Casablanca, White Christmas, and West Side Story always lift my spirits and keep me humming. I love films set in West Africa. Two of my favorite West African filmmakers are Ousmane Sembene and Abderrahmane Sissako. Sembene's film Moolaade (in Bambara with subtitles) is the story of what happens when three village girls refuse to have the female circumcision ceremony performed. Shows the power of a woman standing strong for what she believes against the strong tides of tradition. Sissako's film Life on Earth shows how life in a small village is unchanging despite world events. His new film Bamako has gotten great reviews, and I hope to see it soon.

    What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
    I'm an 80's fan and love spastic dancing: R.E.M., B-52's, The Cure, The Smiths. I love the early years of Elton John, Genesis, and Peter Gabriel. My children-of-the-sixties parents raised me on Peter, Paul, and Mary, the Mamas and the Papas, and the Beatles. Celtic music is always a favorite of mine: The Bothy Band, Altan, The House Band, and Wolfstone (our first son was born a week early after a loud Wolfstone concert. Guess he wanted to join the dance). The music of West Africa is legendary. My favorite singers are Angelique Kidjo, Oumou Sangare (danced on stage with her in Koutiala, Mali!), Habib Koite, Salif Keita, Ali Farka Toure, and Amadou & Miriam. I've also had the great pleasure to read sections of my book with two fabulous Malian griots (the traditional musicians and storytellers of Mali): Mady Kouyate (in Ann Arbor, MI) and Cheick Hamala Diabate (in Washington, D.C.). For writing, I tend to like open windows, the rustling of trees, the creaks of an old house, and silence. If I do listen to music, it must not have English words because I can't filter out the lyrics from my writing.

    If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
    The Bookmaker of Kabul by Asne Seierstad. The author is a journalist and I've heard that the family with whom she lived was less than pleased with their portrayal. I'm interested in portraying truth, in truth as seen through a cultural lens, in fairness and honor. As someone writing about a culture that is not my own, about a family and people that I have come to love, I am interested in the intersection of cultures, languages, races, and of the political and personal. For me, the energy is in these overlaps, the edges where cultures and ideas rub against each other, sparks fly, and life beings anew.

    What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
    I like and own many books on the craft of writing. Reading poetry is satisfying because I can be filled up in such a short time. John, my husband, designs book covers (his business and one of their wonderful designers -- Lilly Pereira -- created mine), and I now appreciate the look and feel of a book. I like covers that aren't too precious or too academic, deep, warm colors, and thick pages with tattered edges. I like stories of women and real people. I love it when a book tosses enough character into a place, people, or time in history to fluff the story three-dimensional. It lets me go there.

    Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
    My desk has nothing ritualistic about it; it's just a mess. I can write in filth and chaos, but not with noise! The early morning hours are my most productive time. Not only because morning tends to be quiet, but because I'm the ultimate extrovert, and this time period offers limited social opportunities. I'm forced to focus. I take my laptop and plop down in the middle of the dining room table (or, more likely, my computer has been left there from the day before when I tapped away on it). In the center of the house when everyone is asleep, early in the morning with a cup of dark-roasted coffee and milk. A nice pad under my tush, and a fleece blanket wrapped around me. Now that's paradise. When writing this book, I surrounded myself with Malian fabrics (the smell alone is enough to fuel pages and pages!), with old letters, and French/Bambara dictionaries, and anything else that would help me write from there. I love typing, really I do, love the feeling of my fingers stretching and dancing across the keyboard. Though I do keep a small tablet and pen with me, in case I need to jot something down when I'm up and about during the day.

    What are you working on now?
    What book am I working on? None as of yet. I'd love to do more work in Mali and write about other aspects of the people and of life there. I'd also like to write about other great women who are too humble to write their own stories. I have some ideas. The book is part of the larger story of my relationship with Monique's family in Mali. I'm thrilled to report that all three of her children – two daughters and a son, continue their education. I can't tell you what an achievement this is. It's due to the support of Monique's siblings in Mali, and the generous funding from people here in the U.S. Monique's sister Angele has become a midwife; she recently received her degree. Monique's cousin Maxim has started a rural birthing house and health clinic in Monique's honor called Cabinet de soins Monique or "Clinique Monique." Currently, he is able to perform minor surgeries and conduct prenatal visits, but his dream is to provide obstetrical care as well. Another birthing house in an area with the fewest doctors and nurses of anywhere in the world! A percentage of proceeds from sales of the book go to capital improvements and program development at this clinic and well as to provide educational funds for the children in Monique's family.

    Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
    I began writing in 1999, and the book came out in 2006. So that tells you something. The first phase was research. First, I gathered journals, letters, cassette tapes, anything I, or my husband, had written or recorded about our Peace Corps experience. Then, on the return trip to Mali, we gathered Monique's clinic records and her own prenatal records, as well as taped conversations and interviews with Monique's family, friends, and colleagues. The interviews were conducted in French and Bambara, but had to be translated into English. Thus I had to portray each person's distinctive voice and personality in a language that she or he had never spoken! Then the research became broader/more contextual: "Does this story illuminate a larger truth about women's lives?" I have a master's in public health, with a concentration in maternal and child health, so I had a pretty good idea that it did. I spent a year reading articles, books, and dissertations/research on women in Mali.

    I certainly began the manuscript during the research phase, but it was emotionally hard to write about Monique. The writing constantly reminded me that she was no longer here. It brought Monique alive again. I would write for hours, totally and completely back in Mali, but then "awake" to the reality of typing at my dining room table in my Massachusetts farmhouse, and realize that Mali was far away, and she was indeed gone. My husband John was a huge part of this process. He edited all the early drafts and improved my ideas, narrative flow, and writing. Couldn't have written it without him.

    I had interest from two agents early on, but we didn't a share common vision of the way to tell the story. We parted ways. When I finally found the right agent, I got rejected by all the major publishers over the course of a year. I have all the rejection letters in a pile that hangs from my wall so that I never forget that all of the "no's" were small stop signs on the road to "yes!"

    A common scenario of nine of the rejections was: I love it, but can't sell it... "It's such a moving story about Kris and Monique -- what an extraordinary woman! But, I'm afraid, I'm going to pass. I'm just not convinced we'd be able to attract enough review attention to make this book the success that it should be. It's such a tough market right now!"

    Three rejections hurt: "I would have liked more focus on Monique's story, which I found the most compelling and unique aspect of the book... I'm sure another editor will be more passionate about Kris' role in the story" and "There are so many "Peace Corps" narratives on submission right now that the writing truly has to be extraordinary for me to consider taking it on. I'm afraid I'm going to step aside." And "In the end, I felt the author was a little too close to the story, and I wanted a bit less agenda at times." Ouch.

    And the rest were form rejections. "While we respect and admire all writers, at this time we are not interested in [insert name of book]. We wish you all the best in placing this elsewhere."

    Finally, I found Waveland Press, an academic publisher specializing in personal ethnographies and the anthropology market. It was a perfect fit. No large advance, but they keep their books in print forever, baby. If you're wondering how the book joined the mainstream, it's due to the great work and commitment of the Literary Ventures Fund, a non-profit foundation that invests in books. They fell in love with Monique's story, and took the book on as their first non-fiction title. Through their collaboration with my publisher, I've had unparalleled marketing and publicity.

    If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
    Well, it would be my husband John, as he has an exacto-knife-sharp wit, and a heart as soft as Snuggles the Fabric Softener Bear. But, that would be self-serving, right? My next pick is Jacqueline Sheehan. Her first novel Truth is a beautiful story about the young life of Sojourner Truth. Her second one Lost and Found comes out this month. It's set in Maine, and is about a widow and unforgettable dog. Why choose Jacqueline? Because she is so smart, and has a way of seeing into people (she's a retired college psychologist) that is unique. Her sensitive and astute understanding of human nature allows her to write character with ease. I feel this gorgeous depth of knowing when I read her work.

    What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
    If I can do it, anyone can do it! I knew I had to publish this book so that others could meet Monique, and be as affected by her as I was. My advice to would-be writers:

    First: life offers a never-ending stream of interesting tales. You must separate grain from chaff and find the kernels worth telling, Who are people that changed you? What are the experiences that you can't get out of your head?

    Second: When you know this "essential story", then learn craft. Buy craft books and read the writers that you admire. Absorb them. I took fiction-writing workshops because, ironically, I had a story, but I didn't know how to tell it. Belonging to a writing group, where every one of us is working on a manuscript, has also been vital. I've learned so much through critiquing others' work.

    Third: Keep writing. Force yourself to write every day. All writers will tell you this and it is true. Be okay with putting crap on a page, because now at least it's on the page, and not in your head. And besides, there WILL be something not smelly in there.

    Fourth: Get something published in a local paper or a magazine so that you'll have something to show an agent when you need one.

    I give this advice because it's the advice that I followed. There are more resources than ever before to help writers at each stage of the journey to bookdom. If you have an important story, you will find a way to tell it. Best of luck.

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  • About the Writer
    *Kris Holloway Home
    * Biography
    * Good to Know
    * Interview
    *Monique and the Mango Rains: Two Years with a Midwife in Mali, 2006