10 Questions for Amanda Kabak
- By Edward Clifford
When Angie answers a knock at our door, this girl, Molly, starts talking a blue streak, each word rendering Angie smaller and more pale until I finally understand what Angie must have from the beginning: this girl is her daughter, a daughter I know nothing about, an entire daughter Angie never once mentioned to me in our decade together. Since we get closer to sharing everything than any other couple I know, I would turn this girl away in disbelief, but she has Angie's eyes and chin and voice, and we move inexorably inside until they are sitting at our small, round kitchen table, and I am hovering around the edges, barren in my uselessness.
—from "Unsafe Haven," Volume 61, Issue 3 (Fall 2020)
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
One of the first adult books I remember reading was Robert A. Heinlein’s Friday, which was way too adult for the kid I still was, but I loved it madly. While some of his books have not aged particularly well, that one is still a favorite and this great combination of spy thriller, road (space) trip, and personal journey tropes. In a more literary bent, I go back to Amy Bloom’s first two collections of stories many times as well as Willa Cather. They both have this juicy but not overdone language that acts like a scalpel to cut right to the heart of what they have to say about the human condition. I remember being spellbound by William Styron’s Sofie’s Choice and the way he could just sit in description and metaphor without pulling you under and boring you to tears. I wanted to write more like him, but I fail every time.
What other professions have you worked in?
After graduating college and a short stint as a technical editor of engineering reports, I fell into software development, and I’ve been doing that for over two decades. It’s not something I talk about in social situations, and I’m actually a bit of a luddite in my personal life, but it satisfies the logical, scientific, problem-solving part of my brain. Software engineering is about the exact antithesis of creating art. In software, mastery and efficiency is everything, and reuse rules all. Implementations are either correct or incorrect, and while there are multiple ways to solve a problem, judging the quality of those solutions is relatively straightforward.
When focusing on art, however, I strive for perpetual apprenticeship, this feeling of never arriving. While writing software should get easier over time, making art should remain, at least in many ways, hard. If I’m not trying to uncover the next level of what I can express, of who I can touch with my writing, what’s the point of it all?
What did you want to be when you were young?
I wanted to be an adult. Seriously. I longed to be out on my own with a job and rent and laundry and food shopping and all the other trappings of adulthood. Luckily, I just had to bide my time, and my wish was granted! I still love all that stuff, though I wouldn’t mind working a little less.
What inspired you to write this piece?
I was driving up Sheridan Road just north of Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, and I saw a poster for the Safe Haven program. It felt both impossible and inevitable that something like that would exist. In my writing, I examine guilt and shame and regret a lot, the idea of living with the things you’ve done and not done. Giving up a newborn you thought you’d be able to care for felt like the most stark illustration of something that could so easily tear you apart. It’s a choice that is both incredibly selfish and selfless, which I imagine would make it really difficult to reconcile within yourself and could push someone to do so much to try to either bury it or outrun it. Writing about guilt and regret is also a narrative with a long view of things; the story is not about the decision or initial inciting incident but how those decisions and incidents evolve inside the cloistered environment of someone’s head over time and what causes that painful past to erupt into the present moment of the story.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Apparently, I write about places I’ve lived only after I’ve stopped living there. Though my first novel, The Mathematics of Change, was set in an invented college town in Ohio (that maybe harkened back to my own time in school), my forthcoming novel is set in Boston, where I lived for over 15 years, and the one I’m finishing up now is set in Chicago, where I lived until moving to Florida 4 years ago. Florida has been fodder for many, many writers, and I can only guess how it’ll come out in my writing once I finally escape its humid clutches.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
Given the upheavals around COVID-19 and the periods of quarantine, I’ve become more flexible with my writing routine. Prior to the lock downs, I wrote every day in coffee shops, needing that in-betweenness of not-work and not-home. I thrived on background noise I could tune out so I could tune into my work and the comfort of breaking up thoughts with sips from a mug of tea. I loved being able to look out floor-to-ceiling windows when I got stuck, watching people walk by or the weather play out over the sidewalk and street outside.
Now I sit in a desk at my house, looking out at our yard and flowers and birdbath, but I at least still have my tea and my fountain pen and paper (yes, I’m very old school), and the familiar exercise of imagining and writing and revising carries me through.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
I am an inveterate solo writer, and I spent so many years of my time as a writer prematurely considering a piece “done” that I now don’t let anyone see my writing until it has become painful for me to work on it, I’ve put it away for a while, and it’s become painful again. When I do let someone read it, it’s always my partner and sweetheart. That said, after working so long over so many drafts to get something to be truly finished before she sees it, when she starts reading and asks, “How close do you think this is to done?” a part of me shrivels. Out comes the pen, and I know I’m still due for some editing.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
Until I was in my late teens, I thought I would be a classical musician. I played the French horn seriously for 15 years and sang in a symphonic chorus for another 15. There’s something delicious about all that breathing in and out, oxygen coursing through your body while you are both an individual as well as part of an integrated whole. It’s completely different from writing in that the music itself is evanescent, and the activities of practice and performance are sharply demarcated in a way that doesn’t exist with writing.
But music was never creative for me. It was an exercise in translation and mastery. Yes, making music is magical, especially in front of an audience, but I was always focused on the mechanics of things (when playing the horn) or the skill of my director when I sang in that chorus. Just like I was an excellent problem solver but not a scientist, I was a very good technician but not a creative musician. Truly, I’m helpless in every other art but writing.
What are you working on currently?
I have a new novel coming out in July 2021 (Upended from Brain Mill Press), but I’m currently editing the *next* novel, which I haven’t sold or even titled yet. It’s a first-person comedy about communication and genius and virginity, and though I’m well into the third draft, it could very easily take me another year to finish. Despite writing just about every day, I have a terribly inefficient process that I describe like very slowly planing down a piece of wood. The editing goes layer by thin layer with another pass through the text lurking around every corner. I’ve also got another couple new stories in the work that might never amount to anything, but one can always hope. One of them seems to be going nowhere, but I’m a little in love with the characters, so I fear I might just have found my next big project.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, but I’m quickly nearing the end and need to sniff out the next book I’m going to throw myself into. I tend to get way more out of books when I reread them, so I might pull Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows off my shelf or maybe go in the opposite direction and finally acquaint myself with Karen Russel via her Swamplandia! These days I love to browse the home page of bookshop.org and building up my reading list from their many different curated ones.
AMANDA KABAK is the author of the novels The Mathematics of Change and Upended (forthcoming in 2021), and her stories have been published in Tahoma Literary Review, Midwestern Gothic, Sequestrum, The Laurel Review, and other print and online periodicals. She has been awarded the Lascaux Review fiction award, Arcturus Review’s Al-Simāk award for fiction, the Betty Gabehart prize from the Kentucky Women Writer’s Conference, and multiple Pushcart Prize nominations. She holds an MFA from Pacific University.