Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Author Interview: Theresa Griffin Kennedy

Author Theresa Griffin Kennedy is a native Portlander who has written an earlier nonfiction book about Portland's history of corruption and a book of poetry. Burnside Field Lizzard, a short story collection, is her first book of fiction.

Theresa recently answered questions for Rose City reader about her new book, writing, and "domestic noir":

How did you come to write the stories in Burnside Field Lizard?

These five stories are about women who are tossed away, devalued and fighting to survive, even if survival is only possible through deviancy. As a low income mother and college student in my middle 30’s living in NE Portland, I witnessed struggling women every day. Strung out, hungry, confused, lost and without hope: I wished I could help them but couldn’t do much more than give them spare change, a warm greeting and shampoo or soap samples from the motels where I cleaned. Their stories never left me.

What is the significance of the title? Does it have a personal meaning for you besides its connection to the title story?

A "Field Lizard" is woman of loose morality or in some cases a prostitute. My brother taught me that. Burnside Street is a road in Portland, Oregon that after so many decades of murders and evil deeds, carries a dark feeling of jeopardy within its intersections. This title expresses my truly place-based writing. The soul of old Portland resides in these pages.

What is the significance of the cover image?

The cover image was originally created from a cell phone photo my daughter took in 2016 which was then recreated by my graphic designer Gigi Little, by taking her own photo of a like ensemble of similar objects and toying with color. The image seems a perfect reflection to me of both the throwaway culture of small plastic objects and the "plastic" nature of new Portland covering up the "dinosaurs" of old Portland. All while giving a nod the the significance of the bar scene in the history of debauchery and human connection in this old western town.

You are a native Portlander. How much of your stories are drawn from their location and
your knowledge of it?

All my stories are in some way about Portland. I’ve lived here my whole life and know nearly every inch of the city. I value writing about things with which I’m familiar because the intimate details of a city's geography produces authority. As a lifer, I have an complex love/hate relationship with my hometown that might perplex newcomers. However, when you can go back fifty years in your recollection of a city, you have both a richer and broader understanding of a town.

You describe your stories as “domestic noir.” What do you mean by that?

Domestic noir, according to Julia Crouch, "takes place primarily in homes and workplaces, concerns itself largely with the female experience, is centered around relationships and takes as its base a broadly feminist view that the domestic sphere is a challenging and sometimes dangerous prospect for its inhabitants.” I'm influenced by domestic noir writers such as Gillian Murphy and Darcey Steinke. I didn’t write the stories in Burnside Field Lizard with the idea that I’d be promoting or defending women – it just happened that way. With a very real war being waged against women in this country and elsewhere, it’s important to me to present women as strong, complex and as the survivors they are, however damaged.

What is your professional background? How did it lead you to writing fiction?

I have limited work experience. Originally, I went back to college in 2001 to become a parole officer but instead, pivoted to writing. It helped that my father, Dorsey Griffin was also a writer and author. I wouldn’t be a writer if not for my father’s unwavering support. The social act of writing and expressing myself through the written word is the way I make sense out of a violent and confusing world. My first inclination is to express and then to feel heard.

What did you learn from writing your book – either about the subject of the stories or the
writing process – that most surprised you?

Writing this book, I discovered my deep anger about the plight of women in our society. This discovery came on as a slow burn, taking a while for me to digest. The emotional impact of my fury at how women are treated, particularly in our current governmental administration, is one of my most important realizations. On another note, I also learned that I can write a killer sex scene: graphic sex writing in literature doesn't scare me. It can be ugly; it can be explicit and still emotionally moving at the same time.

What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given as an author?

The best advice I've gotten from writer friends is not be afraid. Notably, that message has come from men writers rather than women writers. JD Chandler and Tom Hansen have reminded me to just tackle what I want, to not worry about the approval of the establishment or the powers that be. So, disregarding the fear of what others might think is probably the most important thing I’ve been told – that, and reading every available teaching to expand my awareness of plot mechanisms, vocabulary, grammar and overall understanding of the bigger picture of a story or a novel. I'm not a writer who puts out three novels a year. I work at each sentence and continue to take writing classes as I go.

Who are your three (or four or five) favorite authors? Is your own writing influenced by the
authors you read?

Number one: Darcey Steinke. There is just something about her writing that is so unique and her playfulness with language is unforgettable. Next, Daphne Du Maurier, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Toni Morrison, and most passionately, Portland author, Lidia Yuknavitch. Other than my draw to domestic noir, I would not say my writing is strongly influenced by anyone.

My older verbiage was once called “pedantic” and frankly, I took it as a compliment because my stylistic formality draws a more striking contrast to my character's difficult sets of circumstances. While my parents were college educated, I grew up low income, the seventh of nine children. We were exposed to literature all the time and my mother was always correcting our English. It was an odd upbringing, but I wouldn’t trade it now for anything in the world. I suppose this was the strongest influence on my writing style.

What kind of books do you like to read? What are you reading now?

I read constantly and sometimes as many as four books simultaneously. Right now I’m reading FEAR by Bob Woodward and Dora: A Headcase by Lidia Yuknavitch. The contrast is wonderful and they’re both absolutely amazing.

You are active on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. From an author's perspective, how
important are social networking sites and other internet resources to promote your book?

Instagram is much more fun than Facebook, so now I’m hooked! It can be a burden sometimes to feel obligated to check in and create a post or update. But it’s also a source of enjoyment. I've weathered a lot of drama through social media but the positive has outweighed the negative and it's simply the best way to promote yourself as a writer.

Do you have any events coming up to promote your book?

There will be a launch party at CRUSH in the month of October, date TBA! Follow me on Twitter for details.

What’s next? Are you working on your next book?

About ten months ago, I began writing my first novel, Talionic Night in Portland. A TV assignment editor becomes involved with a grade school custodian and they fall in love. They traverse a very class conscious town in a morbid comic love story with Portland as the backdrop, during 2005. Following my current domestic noir release, I'd call this one comic noir. It's been a lot of fun to write. Talionic Night in Portland will be available in early 2019.

I’m also finishing a book of intimate personal narrative essays from my life called We Learned to Live in that Castle: Stories. These stories document my teen years in foster care and the sexual awakening that occurred while I was constantly moving from one foster home to another, my years as an isolated single mother in the early 2000’s, a rape I experienced as a child in 1979 when I was thirteen, and the suicide of my first love, a boy I desperately loved. We Learned to Live in that Castle: Stories will also be available in 2019.



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