Midwestern Gothic staffer Cammie Finch talked with New York Times bestselling author Lesley Kagen about Milwaukee, authenticity, literary communities today, and more.
Midwestern Gothic: What is your connection to the Midwest?
Lesley Kagen: I was born and raised in Milwaukee. Moved away in my twenties to live in Chicago, Colorado, New York and Los Angeles, but came back in my forties to raise my kids. The Midwest is home. Like Dorothy says, there’s no place like it.
MG: You previously worked as an actor, appearing in on-air commercials, made-for-TV movies, and even an episode of Laverne and Shirley! How have your experiences with dialogue, facial expressions, and movement on the screen influenced your writing and the way that your characters interact with each other?
LK: Writing…acting…they both come from the same place. The ability to understand characters down to the tiniest detail. How they dress, what they smell like, what cereal they eat in the morning, how they respond to certain situations, what they’re hiding and what they’re sharing, what their ultimate goals are. A writer creates characters, an actor portrays them, dialogue between them, whether spoken or written, moves the story along.
MG: Your latest novel, Mare’s Nest, exposes a mother’s spot in limbo between her repression of her own distressing childhood and her support for her daughter’s passion for horses. Similarly, in your first published work, Whistling in the Dark, a 10-year old girl becomes encircled with mystery, family secrets, and murder in her small town, which leads to a loss of childlike innocence. What do you think the role of writing is in dealing with or confronting pain and vulnerability?
LK: I think everyone should write, it’s good for the soul. Be it journaling or a diary, to take entrenched pain and expose it to the light of day can help us see it in a different way, and hopefully, transcend it. But publishing what you write is a whole ‘nother ball of wax that is not dissimilar to a person who is passionate about cooking deciding to open up a restaurant. Two completely different animals.
MG: Many of your books are written from the viewpoints of children or young narrators. What advantages does this allow for in your writing? Are there any limitations to this specific voice?
LK: Kids’ emotions are so accessible, their thought processes—disarming, but they’re often unreliable, and as readers we know this and fear for them. When I write in a child’s voice, it affords me the opportunity to expose the young characters to certain obstacles that they interpret in a way that may or may not be erroneous. Kids are also natural comedians, not in a jokey kind of way, but in conveying their misconceptions. I love the way they see the world. The only limitations I’ve found in telling a story through their eyes is that I need to be extraordinarily vigilant that their language doesn’t surpass their development and that their observations are appropriate for their age.
MG: Whistling in the Dark is set in Milwaukee, your beloved hometown. What was your research process prior to or while writing? Did you make any discoveries about the town that you hadn’t noticed before?
LK: Since the story is set during the Fifties in the blue-collar Milwaukee neighborhood I grew up in, very little research was required. Combing what remains of my memory was the real key and, if necessary, verifying facts that my child brain might’ve misinterpreted along the way.
MG: How do you go about making a story feel authentic? Many writers’ advice to hopeful authors is to “write what you know.” Do you believe in this mantra? If so, how do you make it work for you?
LK: All writers approach a story differently. I mine my memory and use my life experience, but others like to write about 16th century England or dystopian tales. I think the most important advice I could give to any newbie is to write what your heart wants you to. What you can’t ignore. What you’re passionate about. If your adore cats, write about cats, if you’re mesmerized by mysteries— go for it. What truly moves and intrigues you will affect a reader the same way.
MG: You recently did a reading at the Cedarburg Library in Cedarburg, Wisconsin. Do you find that there is still a kind of literary community, or pockets of literary communities, despite recent and rapid changes in how books are published, distributed, and read?
LK: Despite the complete meltdown that’s ongoing in the publishing world, the bottom line is that people will always love and seek out stories. Some will gather together to discuss them. Book clubs are a great example. I’ve spent hundreds of hours with women who’ve read my books and want to share their experiences. Libraries are another great place to hang out with bookies, and indie bookstores nurture reader and writer get-togethers too.
MG: What’s next for you?
LK: The Undertaking of Tess, a novella featuring the ten and eleven-year-old Finley sisters, was recently released, and in March 2015, The Resurrection of Tess Blessing, in which we discover what has become of the sisters thirty years later, will make its debut. Very excited and hopeful that readers will fall in love with the girls.
Lesley Kagen is an actress, voice-over talent, former restaurateur, sought-after speaker, and award-winning, New York Times bestselling, author of five novels and a novella. Her work has been translated into seven languages. She’s the mother of two and grandmother of two. She lives in a hundred-year-old farm house in a small town in Wisconsin.