K.L. Barron is an author of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. She lives in the Flint Hills of Kansas and teaches writing and literature at Washburn University in Topeka. Thirst is her debut novel.
KL talked with Rose City Reader about her book Thirst, living in the Sahara among the Tuareg people, writing about place, and her process of writing a captivating novel.How did you come to write your new novel, Thirst?
Once upon a time, I lived in the Sahel, the edge of the Sahara, in Niger among the Tuaregs and the other nomads in the area as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English to their children. The experience is one I have never forgotten. In a recent blog post titled "How to Change Your Life Forever," I wrote, Travel to a country that has a different language and culture than yours. Don’t just visit. Live there for a year or two. Learn the language(s) and culture(s). The struggle is worth it. Once you’ve adjusted, it will be hard to leave. Do it slowly. Know that even when you leave, it will come with you. For example, my body is filled with sand.
I wanted to set a story there because of the high contrast, dominating landscape and to shine a light on and capture some of the nomads’ endangered traditional culture on the page before it disappears much as the Native Americans’ has. Most of the story take place over a year in 1989, which the narrator spends among the Tuareg people in Niger. What drew you to this setting for your novel?
I am a writer of place. To my mind, our earth is a shared space, a sacred place that connects us all. We are formed, informed, and at the mercy of nature. I like to explore relationships between nature and people on the page through the written landscape of words and images. Thirst is set on the edge of the Sahara in one of the most desolate places on earth. To live there you have to be tough, to survive there, tougher still. The desert landscape drives everything.
In 1989-1990, a tragic political event occurred in Tchin-Tabaraden, where I lived, where the majority of the novel takes place. Writing the novel was my way of processing it. Is any of the story based on or inspired by your personal experiences or travels? Thirst
is a blend of memory, research, and imagination. The place and political events are true. The characters are composites of friends, neighbors, and students who now live on the landscape of the page. How did you research the cultural and historical details found in your book that bring the story to life?
Since I lived there, I knew the place and some of the people in an intimate way, but cultures are complicated, so I read widely on Niger, on the Tuaregs and the other nomads in that area, especially writings by anthropologists, some of whom I met when living there. I was especially mindful about expressing the views of the Tuareg characters and opted to read poet and Tuareg leader Mano Dayak’s books, essentially translating his views, his perspective. 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?
Both! I’ve carried an image in my mind for years and wrote to that ending, but it also changed in the different versions I wrote over time. Even when writing the final draft, the characters surprised me. What did you learn from writing your book – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?
I learned so much! I’ve always been drawn to the acoustics of language and started writing in poetry, so if the sound and images were right in the novel, it felt satisfying to me, but agents, readers expect a plot, conflict, and action. It took me a while to figure out how to incorporate all those elements in a way that sounded right to my ear. What themes do you hope readers will find in your novel?
Love, forgiveness, personal and cultural identity, and what it takes to survive in a brutal landscape, both geographically and politically. What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
I hope readers will take away an awareness and respect for the Tuaregs, who have who have been surviving on the margins their entire lives despite the odds. What is your favorite review or compliment you received about your book?
Aimee Liu, author of Glorious Boy
wrote my favorite blurb:
Thirst will haunt you. Set in a space so remote and uniquely fascinating that every page brings new cultural revelations, this novel introduces western readers to Niger’s Tuareg people with deep compassion. K.L. Barron has created a multicultural cast of unforgettable characters whose personal quirks and vulnerabilities lead to both joyous and tragic consequences, but the most powerful character is the desert itself. As beautiful and ruthless as a god, the Sahel shapes survival into a form of worship. What is your background and how did it lead to writing fiction?
Although I started writing poetry from a very young age and still love it (I can always tell when a novel has been written by a poet), I thought that the market was a little wider for prose because of the familiar architecture of the sentence. I took a few fiction writing classes at largely agricultural schools in the Midwest and then finally decided to really study the craft at Bennington College in Vermont where I earned an MFA in fiction. Were books an important part of your household when you were growing up?
My brother and I were read to every night when we were young, one of my favorite memories growing up. When older, though my brother was always a reader of non-fiction, my parents didn’t read for their own pleasure unfortunately. I read and wrote poetry at the time and had a fantastic high school teacher who inspired us all to read fiction. Who are your three (or four or five) favorite authors? Is your own writing influenced by the authors you read? Amity Gaige
, Jane Urquhart
, Alessandro Baricco
, Louise Krug
… What are you reading now? True Biz
by Sara Nović. Love it. You have a terrific website and are also active on Instagram. From an author's perspective, how important are social networking sites and other internet resources?
I think social media is very important, and I am rather new at it! I’m so pleased I discovered you there. Do you have any writing rituals, odd habits, or superstitions?
I don’t like to talk too much about what I’m writing when I’m still in the process of figuring out what the story is. I would rather the characters reveal what happens. What advice has helped you the most as a writer?
The A, B, C’s: Apply Butt to Chair Do you have any events coming up to promote your book?
Yes! I’m so excited to partner with Rain for the Sahel and Sahara
to donate a dollar for every book sold to support the nomadic women and children of Niger through access to education, entrepreneurship, and sustainable water and agriculture. We’re going to have a virtual discussion about Thirst
on Tuesday, May 2nd, 6:30-7:30pm ET on Zoom. You’re invited! Please register on Rain’s website
. What’s next? Are you working on another book?
I have three book ideas I’m mulling for the next one: A survival story set in the ocean off the island of Kiribati, developing my short story “First Light” into a novel with an entirely different but just as powerful and dominating landscape. A creative non-fiction book developed from the short memoir piece “Natural Strangers” reconstructing the biological mother I never knew. Or a creative non-fiction book Sue Monk style about a trip my oldest daughter and I took last spring where the landscapes revealed our relationship in surprising and meaningful ways.