Kimberly Knutsen is the author of The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath, a funny, literary novel about a college instructor in the Midwest, working on his PhD dissertation -- a creative work about the poet's lost diaries. Meanwhile, his wife is going through her own post-PhD slump. And things only get worse when her pregnant, '80s-obsessed, sister gets to town.
Kimberly recently took time to answer some questions for Rose City Reader:
How did you come to write The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath?
I was in a PhD program in Michigan and wrote the novel as my dissertation. During the years I worked on it, I had three small children, so I’d often be nursing a baby as I wrote. I also wrote in coffee shops. I spent a lot of money on lattes and lemon bars!
The book is permeated with the atmosphere of Midwestern academia. Did the setting influence the plot? Or vice versa?
I was definitely influenced by academia. Professors are insane, and they’re very easy to make fun of. Something about the high IQs turns the crazy up to 11. I taught women’s studies in Michigan, and while I’m a lifelong feminist, it was funny how humorless that world could be. There are always faculty feuds in academia. It’s a very class-conscious and incestuous world. I thought it would be funny to put Wilson—self-proclaimed genius who knows nothing about women—into a women’s studies department. Or maybe it was mean. Mean and fun.
There is a fine tradition of Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduates like you setting novels in Midwestern academia. Did you consciously follow in the footsteps of Philip Roth (Letting Go) and Jane Smiley (Moo)?
No. But I did love Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, which takes place in Iowa. And of course Dennis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. Something about debauchery set against the clean, flat canvas of the Midwest is compelling to me. As January says in the novel, “There are no edges to this world.” No mountains, no oceans. It’s disconcerting. Where do you end, and where does the world begin? I grew up in Portland, which has very defined boundaries: ocean, mountain, desert, Tualatin. You feel at once contained and free.
What is your professional background? How did it lead you to writing The Lost Journals?
I started out as a dancer, working in shows in Europe and Japan, Puerto Rico, and even on a cruise ship—The Love Boat. This led to living in Las Vegas and attending UNLV, where my attention shifted away from dance and onto writing. In the novel, Katie has body issues—she thinks she’s a monstrous beast when she’s not—and I could relate to that. Growing up in the dance world, you are hyper-focused on your body during those critical adolescent years, and your thinking becomes warped. Starving and bingeing was a way of life, and it wasn’t until I started writing and found my voice that I allowed myself to eat. Eating always seemed wrong; it wasn’t something good, perfect, skinny girls did.
Now, I teach a seminar on body image and media, and it’s sad to see an entire classroom of young, beautiful eighteen-year-old women hating their bodies. It’s a feminist issue, and it’s insidious and crippling—and I don’t think you ever truly get over it. But calling it out—naming the aggression directed toward women in a consumer society—is a start.
Your book goes back and forth between the point of view of the two main characters, Professor Wilson Lavender and his wife Katie. Why did you chose this approach?
I don’t think I consciously chose it. I just sort of listened to the story emanating like ghostly curtains of light from my subconscious—the “basement guy,” Stephen King calls his muse—and did what felt right. I listened to my “basement lady.”
Did you know right away, or have an idea, how you were going to end the story? Or did it come to you as you were in the process of writing?
Writing a novel is like driving across the country. Halfway there you’re in Nebraska for, like, five days, and this is when the panic sets in. You’re never going to get where you’re going, and if you turn back, it’s going to take forever to get there, too. It’s all the North Platte River, over and over again—you keep crossing it, you’re going nowhere, you’re crying and calling your mom from the creepy hotel room, babies howling in the background, the elderly dog you were sure was going to die three days ago panting on the bed because you’re in the middle of a heat wave—this is what writing a novel is like.
My advice: Keep going. You will eventually leave Nebraska. You will eventually find your way home to the end of your story, and when you get there you’ll be shocked because you thought you had much farther to go. Endings sneak up on you—in novels and in life. Things are always over before they’re over. So appreciate the ride!
What did you learn from writing The Lost Journals – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?
I learned how much I loved and respected my partner at the time, the writer Curtis Dawkins, on whom Wilson is based. Like the characters in the book, we fought all the time—for no reason at all! Who would be fine with the apocalypse happening right at that moment, and who never wanted the world to end? Oh my God, you two immature goons—WHO CARES?
Now when I read the book, I like Wilson best. Deep down, beneath his addiction and tortured genius and nonsense with his officemate Alice Cherry, he has integrity, and I admire that.
Who are your three (or four or five) favorite authors? Is your own writing influenced by who you read?
I imagine my favorite writers from childhood as guardian angels, even though they’re still alive. Beverly Cleary, for sure. One of my best memories is listening to my mom read Ellen Tebbits and then reading it myself. The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Henry Huggins. Heaven! When I see the statues of Henry and Ribsy and Ramona at Grant Park in Portland, I tear up. It’s like running into beloved childhood friends.
And Judy Blume, of course. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was a wonderful lesson in how to be a young woman. And of course Forever BLEW MY MIND! These writers were strong women themselves, and they were kind and generous and respected their young readers.
My descriptive style is influenced by the late Jackie Collins. She was an amazing storyteller, and her description was so lush and vivid I often felt like eating her books. Literally. I loved her wild and sophisticated worlds. She made me want to write.
What kind of books do you like to read? What are you reading now?
I love memoirs, especially rock memoirs, like Cherie Currie’s Neon Angel. Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh is laugh-out-loud funny, and I can’t wait for her new book to come out in the spring. I want to read Chrissie Hynde’s memoir, and I love it that she told people to “just don’t buy the fucking book,” when she was called out for writing about her rape experience in a politically incorrect manner. Very punk rock!
Also, Lena Dunham’s memoir saved me on a horrible flight from Portland to Michigan. I was having severe panic, and the pilot had turned the heat up to what felt like 97 degrees. I just kept breathing and reading Lena’s book and finally—finally—we landed. Afterward, she felt like a friend, like someone I’d been through war with.
What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given as an author?
Write whatever you want. Be as weird as you are. Own it, work it—no one does you like you. But I don’t think anyone ever told me that. I think I told myself.
What is the best thing about being a writer?
Being able to live life twice. Being able to disappear into a dream world, one much more honest and beautiful and thrilling than “reality.” Being able to record, however fictionalized, moments in time that I can look back on now and think, Wow, life is horrific, yes, but it’s also absolutely beautiful. And so fleeting!
What’s next? Are you working on your next book?
I’ve written the sequel to The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath. It’s called Violet, and will hopefully come out in the next year. I have a novella, My Blue World, on the website Novella T, and I’m working on a third novel about a perimenopausal single mom and her three wild teens. Oh, and a hot dad. And a guinea pig named Sparkle.
THE LOST JOURNALS OF SYLVIA PLATH IS AVAILABLE FROM POWELL'S OR AMAZON, OR ASK YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE TO ORDER IT!