Bloom: This is your first novel, and you’ve practiced and continue to practice law. Do you think of yourself as bi-vocational? Or has your career as a lawyer become more of a “day job”? (Or is this question not the right question for how you look at your two careers?)
Kim Church: I have two careers—have had for many years. With my first novel coming out, I’m now devoting more of my time and energy and passion to my writing career, a trend I hope to continue. Still, I love the collegiality of my law practice, and not only because it’s a nice antidote to the solitariness of writing. I love the lawyers I work with. They’re brilliant and wise and caring and funny and good. They uplift and inspire me. (One has promised he’s going to buy ten copies of my book and read every one.) Even if we weren’t practicing law together, I’d want to hang out with them.
Bloom: You worked on Byrd for many years as a strictly first-person narrative. At one point, while at a writers’ residency, you realized you needed to, in your own words, “explode the narrative”—which resulted in the novel’s current “prismatic” form, using multiple points of view. I wonder about how you found the courage to break the novel down and start again in this way. Related to the question about your two careers, do you think having a solid “day job” in a sense provides the stability to take risks in fiction writing?
KC: I’m a Leo, loyal to a fault. I was devoted to my characters and determined to tell a story worthy of them. It broke my heart to realize my first draft had failed, that I’d have to start over. But you do what you have to. Starting over was scary, yes, especially since I decided to try a form for which there were no rules.
My law practice grounded me. For one thing, the law has rules, rules I’m familiar and comfortable with. And with law, unlike with my book, I had experience; I knew what I was doing. On my hardest writing days, I can’t tell you how reassuring it was to be able to take refuge in work I knew I was good at.
Bloom: You’ve mentioned Madison Smartt Bell’s The Year of Silence as an example of the kind of polyphonic structure that inspired you to revise Byrd. Are there other examples that you studied or that inspired you?
KC: I’ve always been drawn to stories told in different voices. Faulkner is a great example. I chose Addie’s name partly as a nod to As I Lay Dying, one of my favorite Faulkner novels.
Another novel that influenced me structurally was The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros—a series of vignettes unified by the voice of the young narrator, Esperanza.
The structure of Byrd is episodic, but with, I hope, a clear dramatic arc. And I ended up using an omniscient perspective, which allowed me to shift among character viewpoints like a bird hopping from shoulder to shoulder. One of the masters of this kind of shifting perspective is James Salter. He is a point-of-view magician. I kept his story collection Dusk on my go-to shelf as I was working on Byrd.
Bloom: Byrd is about a woman who, after an abortion gone wrong, chooses to give her child up for adoption; it’s also about the child, the father, the adoptive parents—everyone involved. Still, the subject of motherhood, among modern women in particular, can become quite emotionally volatile; there are a lot of “shoulds” in that universe of discussion. Did you, in telling Addie’s story, feel that you needed to approach her almost like a “villain,” i.e. someone the reader would have to get to know, from childhood all the way through her decision and beyond, in order to sympathize with her? Another way of putting it is, were you aware of a certain skeptical or opinionated reader as you wrote?
KC: I was sympathetic to Addie from the beginning. I never thought of her as someone to be justified but rather as someone to be understood. In writing her, I tried to see and feel into her situation as deeply as I could.
The subject of motherhood is a loaded one, I realize. I don’t expect readers to agree with all the choices Addie makes—she is tormented by those choices herself. What I hope is that readers will come to know and accept her, maybe even find something in her to celebrate.
Bloom: Byrd is written in short, present tense vignettes. Can you tell us why you decided to tell the story in this style, particularly the present tense?
KC: I tend to write in short segments that I piece together. This has always been true, whether I’m writing poems or songs or stories. So it made sense to apply that technique to a novel—something I wish I’d figured out before the first draft, which I tried to write as a long, linear narrative.
Given the book’s elliptical, episodic structure and the period covered—45 years in under 250 pages—present tense seemed the best way to move through time. I like the immediacy of present tense, how it pulls the reader into each moment.
Bloom: You said in an interview that you had a moment of “validation” when a teacher invited you into her writing group. What advice do you have for later-life aspiring writers who are struggling with doubt?
KC: Wicked, wicked doubt, like gravity, is always there, ready to pull us down, suck us under. We all need our little flotation devices. What I’d say to aspiring writers is, take hold of whatever is good, whatever excites or moves or fulfills you—maybe it’s an invitation to join a writing group; maybe it’s a dazzling sentence you didn’t realize you had in you; maybe someone laughs or cries over one of your stories. Whatever affirming things come your way—and they don’t have to be big; the most meaningful rewards are often small things—cling to them. Honor them. Celebrate them.
And remember that we all struggle. Be kind to other writers. Kindness begets kindness.
Bloom: Why do you think you didn’t “go for it” originally in terms of pursuing fiction-writing as a first vocation/career? If you could go back and do it all differently, would you?
KC: It never occurred to me to pursue fiction writing as a career until I actually began writing stories, and by then I was well into my thirties and established in my law career. My early writing was poetry, which I knew would not support me, and being self-supporting was of paramount importance to me.
The law was a good career choice, one I don’t regret. It has allowed me to be of service to others and occasionally to influence public policy on issues that matter to me. It calls on my analytical, strategic, and writing skills. And I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the best lawyers anywhere.
My law practice continues to support me even though I no longer work at it full-time—a tremendous benefit for my writing. I’ve been able to give myself time, money, and a room of my own. So no excuses, and no regrets.
Bloom: Your current project is a historical novel. In what ways are you approaching the writing of this novel differently from Byrd? Do you feel more confident now in your ability to structure a novel and follow it through?
KC: The historical novel is different not only in the research it requires but also in that I have a clearer idea of the story starting out. Of course, that idea could change as I get to know my characters. I expect—in fact I pray—they will continue to surprise me until the moment the book is done.
Bloom: What are you looking forward to, and what are you nervous about, as the release of Byrd and all the attending activities near?
KC: I’m excited about engaging with readers. Writing is an odd occupation. It requires long periods of intense solitude; at the same time, its purpose is to communicate—to create community.
I’ve done the solitude part; now I’m ready for community.
What makes me nervous, given my age (I’m in my 50s), is wondering if I’ll have the stamina for all the activities I’m scheduling. I’m encouraged by the experience of a friend who recently brought out her first novel at the age of 72. She says that talking with people about her book gives her energy. I believe her: she’s constantly traveling, speaking, giving readings, meeting with book clubs. And she has more energy and grace and joie de vivre than any army of 30-year-olds. She is my role model.
Bloom: Is there a question we haven’t asked that you’d like to answer? Please feel free to.
KC: Maybe because I’ve been listening to Tina Turner, this question comes to mind: What’s love got to do with it?
The answer is, everything. Love is essential to my writing process. If I can’t find something to love in even the most unlovable character, that character is lost.
In my life, love gives me the freedom to take chances. I’m lucky there are people in the world who love me unconditionally—my husband, my family, my close friends. Because of them, I’m free to risk failure. Without them, success would mean nothing; it would be “as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”
Last year a tornado came through downtown Raleigh, within a mile of our house. I was at home with Carlos, our cat. I barricaded myself in the closet with him and, knowing we could die, I frantically tried to summon a prayer, a mantra, anything to keep us calm. What came to me was a song I learned in choir, “There is only love.” I sang it over and over until the storm passed.
Click here to read an excerpt from Kim Church’s debut novel Byrd.