by Shoba Viswanathan
As the #MeToo movement raises awareness and the #TimesUp hashtag gives hope, the reality of gendered violence has been the focus of many of our news cycles. This is a conversation that is long overdue in the public sphere; it has felt right that the range of contexts in which harassment and violence play out has garnered some acknowledgement. The pervasiveness of male violence has been demoralizing at times, and there have even been passing jokes that the solution maybe creating women-only spaces.
So, when I read about Rosalie Morales Kearns and her novel Kingdom of Women, I was more than a little intrigued. Here’s a writer who has explored this idea of a land created by women who break away from patriarchal culture. The book is a critique of patriarchy, but also a nuanced exploration of violence, revenge, and mercy, making it a work that feels simultaneously timely and timeless. While this is Kearns’ debut novel, she has been publishing short stories, poems, and essays and has also previously published a collection of short stories, Virgins & Tricksters.
It was wonderful to have an opportunity to connect with Kearns to talk about her new book, the spiritual framework of her writing, and her feminist publishing house, Shade Mountain Press.
Shoba Viswanathan: How did you approach the setting of Kingdom of Women? You have anchored it in known places, but did you consider creating a whole new parallel universe of changed social structure?
Rosalie Morales Kearns: I thought it was important to set the novel in something resembling the contemporary world. The fact that the Roman Catholic Church accepts women priests, the fact that North Dakota has seceded from the United States—these are meaningful to readers because they represent sharp breaks from what we know.
But so much else is the same, especially the relentless violence against women. And that misogynist violence has a context and a history that the novel draws on. Then, of course, as the novel goes forward, we enter a wholly imagined future. But it’s still very much anchored in our own reality.
Besides, I’m not sure my imagination is nimble enough to envision a full-fledged parallel universe.
SB: Religion and spirituality seem to be an integral part of your work. The feminist theology underlying the novel makes religion serve as at least a vaguely familiar framework to the imagined land of Erda. Do you think faith will have a part in the path forward for women as we say #TimesUp?
RMK: Part of the fun of imagining a post-patriarchal society was to think about what spiritual practices and impulses would survive. The monotheistic religions as institutions don’t seem to be around anymore, though there’s mention of continuing devotion to Mary the Blessed Mother, along with goddesses from other traditions. There’s a new Erdan Tarot deck. There’s the community that grows up around Averil during her later years, with a whole theology built around the meaning of her life. And of course many people in that future world remain skeptical about religion in whatever form it takes.
As for the relationship between faith and feminist activism in the real world: clearly some activists are motivated by their faith. But there’s such a troubled history of institutional religions supporting the powerful against the powerless, propping up emperors and colonizers and inquisitors, making life miserable especially for women. That legacy will have to be reckoned with.
SV: Differing attitudes to faith are not the only thing separating Averil, a priest, and Catherine, an atheist. How do they manage to be friends despite their ideological differences?
RMK: One thing they have in common, I think, is that these two people, a mystic and an assassin, are both such outliers, such solitary figures. There’s nothing typical or average about them. When Averil thinks about Catherine, she uses terms like “pure” and “perfect”; what she means is that Catherine is so focused on her warrior mission and so untroubled by her conscience, and Averil to some extent envies that, because she (Averil) is always beset by doubts and distractions. Also, Averil tries to live by Christ’s insistence that we not pass judgment on each other. She realizes that when someone comes to her, regardless of what that person may have done, it means that they need her in some way, and she feels that as a priest, she needs to be responsive to that.
SV: Your story “Wildwood,” from Virgins & Tricksters, was published in the online journal Cezanne’s Carrot and accompanied by comments from you—including the fact that it was inspired by a single line from your friend’s poem. In another story from that collection, “Triptych,” a character attends evening writing classes, and the story makes some interesting observations about the writing process in that context. Are you always self-aware of the craft as you write?
RMK: When I’m writing a first draft, my aim is dream the scene as fully and vividly as I can—to live in it, walk around in it, try desperately to capture some inkling of that on paper. I deliberately give no thought at all to craft during that early stage. It’s only during revision that I start consciously thinking about questions of techniques and devices. But really, I think that we writers are unconsciously shaping the story even during the full-on rush of a first draft. And that’s great. If you’re a storyteller, you need to get out of your own way and trust your storytelling instincts.
SV: I’ve seen some observations in online literary sites and some social media commentary about women tending to write more autobiographical pieces. Do you find this true? Do you seek separation between your life and your stories?
RMK: It’s a tough question to answer. I think a good number of writers draw on autobiographical elements in their fiction, but I don’t know that women are any more likely to do this than men are. My own work, though, is almost wholly imaginary. I have no interest in writing about my own life.
SV: I believe you started Shade Mountain Press is 2014. If the gatekeepers at traditional publishing houses feel doubtful about the commercial viability of some projects, what allows you the freedom to explore new territories?
RMK: It seems to be widely accepted that editors at major publishing houses don’t have the “freedom” of small presses because they have to convince other colleagues—those in charge of marketing, budgetary issues, etc.—before they can accept a manuscript. But seen another way, I’m the one who doesn’t have freedom. I operate within the constraints of a shoestring budget, and I make ends meet only because of my own unpaid editorial, marketing, and administrative work, the incredible generosity of a volunteer designer, and grants and individual donations. Within these constraints, I can publish only one title a year.
Those Big Five publishers could decide that their next mega-selling cookbook or celebrity memoir could bankroll any number of less-“viable” literary works. They could stop offering enormous advances that are never earned back. By moving around some figures on a spreadsheet they could throw open their gates to brilliant writers whose work is going unread.
SV: In an earlier interview you said, “If you put out a specific call, for authors from a specific background, the message you’re sending is that your next title will definitely be from that group. And that’s an important distinction.” Do you find enough response as you seek out diverse writers?
RMK: When I put out my first submissions call for novel manuscripts by women of color, my press had just started and didn’t have a track record, but the number of submissions has increased with every call. I have no problem finding great manuscripts by women writers from marginalized groups. I just lack the money to produce them all. I keep hoping that they find an agent or a receptive publisher elsewhere.
SV: I was struck by this line when Averil Parnell thinks to herself that “she should get back to her scholarly writing. She was forty-two years old, well past time to produce another book on the medieval women writers she’d specialized in before.” While Averil is talking about academic publishing, there is some this anxiety about the ticking clock for many writers. What do you feel about these internal pressures we place on ourselves about where we should be in our writing career?
RMK: I had short stories published in a few literary journals during my thirties, but I didn’t start my MFA until I was forty, my first book was published when I was forty-nine, and my second one has just come out at age fifty-four.
I realized early on that the stuff I write is simply not something that a conventional publisher would be interested in, and I’m okay with that, but it meant at least four years of submitting, for each book, before acceptance, and then a year or more after that till publication. We need to be patient with ourselves. And we need to remind ourselves that the books we write now, in our forties and beyond, are not the ones we would have written at a younger age.
SV: Do you have any recommendations for the not-very-young emerging writers in terms of what they can do to create opportunities for their work to be published?
RMK: There’s a lot of great writing and publishing advice out there—in magazines like Writer’s Digest, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Chronicle, and also at websites like JaneFriedman.com or the websites of specialized organizations like Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), Romance Writers of America (RWA), Sisters in Crime, etc.
One of the advantages of being on social media and participating in online writers’ groups is that you get to hear from other writers about how long the process takes, and it can prevent you from feeling like you’re the only one in that situation.
Shoba Viswanathan is a writer and editor based in NY. Her long-standing philosophy of understanding the Other Side, has developed a new urgency these days. She can be found on Twitter @shobavish.