Coffee Break: Kim Church on Byrd

Coffee break: Kim Church on Byrd

Why this book?

There was a character I wanted to know, so I had to write her. She needed the space of a novel.

Why this character? Where’d she come from?

Years ago I was having dinner with a man who told me, as casually as he might have asked me to pass the salt, that he’d fathered a child who had to be given up for adoption because he and the mother “waited too long.” I don’t know why he told me; it was an unexpected story delivered in an offhand way. All I could think was, what about the mother? What a different story if she were the one telling it—assuming she would tell it. How would that feel, going through life without the child you’d carried and given birth to? Doing it by choice?

I didn’t know any woman who’d gone through this. I’d never even read about such a character in a book. There are books about mothers; books about women who want to be mothers but can’t; books about women who are somehow forced to give up children. But not, to my knowledge, a book about an independent, capable woman deciding to give up her child.

So I wrote one.

With Addie, I set out to write a character who is profoundly ambivalent about motherhood, and whose decision not to be a mother is tested in the most profound ways.

Are you worried people will try to use your book to support political agendas you may not agree with?

Readers always bring their own beliefs to literature; that’s part of the contract. But my book is not meant as a political book. I’ve written a novel, not a message. I hope my characters are lively. I hope Addie doesn’t become some ideological dead butterfly with pins in her wings. If anything, I think her story illustrates how intensely personal a choice motherhood is. The fact that it’s a complicated, loaded choice makes it no less personal.

How did you go about writing the book? What was your process?

Trial and error. Byrd is the first novel I’ve attempted; I don’t have a secret drawer full of practice novels. Writing it took time and persistence and a patience I didn’t know I had. (My husband will laugh. Patient—me?)

Initially I wrote entirely from Addie’s point of view; I wanted the intimacy and immediacy of first person. But sometimes first person can be too limiting, and this was one of those times—though I didn’t realize it until I’d written a complete draft. I remember taking the manuscript to Vermont Studio Center thinking I’d spend a month polishing it and have a finished novel. After a week I could see it wasn’t working; Addie didn’t know enough to tell the whole story. Of course I didn’t want to admit that at first. I’d spent such a long time on the book already—years. I remember telling our visiting writer, Rikki Ducornet, “I’m not going to write my next book this way.” “Why wait for the next book?” she said.

For three days after that I walked around in the snow, crying. Then I went back to my manuscript and blew the thing up. Not literally, but I exploded the narrative. I started writing scenes from every imaginable point of view. And when I did that, everything changed. The characters started doing things I hadn’t planned, which is always a good sign.

This is an unconventional structure—letters interspersed with short chapters and vignettes from different points of view. How did you come up with it?

I love epistolary fiction, and Addie’s letters to Byrd allowed for the kind of intimacy I wanted when I started the book. But I also needed some distance on Addie. She makes choices for reasons she doesn’t entirely understand, and her choices have consequences she doesn’t appreciate. To get at those parts of her story, I needed other points of view.

One book that influenced me structurally and thematically was Madison Smartt Bell’s The Year of Silence, about a woman who dies of a drug overdose; the central question is, was her death accidental or intentional? Only one chapter, the middle chapter, is written from the dead woman’s point of view. In the chapters that precede and follow hers, the point of view shifts among other characters, some who knew her well, or believed they did, some who observed her only fleetingly—a stranger in a bar, a panhandler at a fruit stand. Through them, we’re allowed glimpses that would have been inaccessible in a first-person narrative.

I wanted that sort of prismatic perspective for Addie’s story.

Do you have an M.F.A.?

No, but I’ve trained with some exceptional teachers. My first fiction teacher was Sharlene Baker at Duke—Fiction Fundamentals. After our last class, Sharlene and I went out to eat and she invited me into her writing group. I burst into tears; I’m just that cool. What a validation.

I apprenticed with Patricia Henley for two years when I was first working on Byrd. I’ve taken graduate workshops at N.C. State University with Jill McCorkle and Angela Davis-Gardner, and summer workshops with Ron Hansen and Ethan Canin. I was an English major in college, and worked on two literary journals. And I had a life-changing high school English teacher, Mildred Ann Raper. Every sensible thing I’ve ever heard about writing I heard first from her. “Write fire,” she said, “not smoke.”

Who are your favorite writers?

Too many to name, but here are a few: Joan Didion and Rebecca Brown for their clinical precision. Marilynne Robinson and Elizabeth Strout for their eloquence and substance. James Salter for his sentences, but not for his characters, whom I hope never to meet. Stewart O’Nan for his characters and his big tender heart. Amy Hempel for her economy and humor. Eudora Welty and Alice Munro, who need no annotation. Wislawa Szymborska.

You’re also a lawyer. How do you balance law and writing?

Not easily. I’ve made big sacrifices in my law career. In the 90s I was a litigation partner in a prominent firm, working long hours, trying hard cases, breaking new legal ground. It was a heady, exhilarating time. My work consumed me.

When I took up fiction, I knew I couldn’t keep practicing law in the same way—I couldn’t honor my commitments to my partners and clients and the court and make a serious commitment to writing.

I chose writing. I resigned my partnership and scaled back my courtroom practice.

Do I need to tell you how scared I was? My friends pretended to admire me but secretly thought I was crazy. My husband—a woodworker and artist—was encouraging but nervous. A week before I left my firm, he went out and bought a case of black beans and three pairs of Eddie Bauer work boots.

Now I practice as an independent contractor, helping other lawyers (including my former partners, who have been wonderfully supportive) work up their cases. It’s a very different life, much more behind-the-scenes. But it suits me. I still get to work with great lawyers on challenging cases. And I have time and emotional energy for writing.

I can’t say I’ve never had regrets, especially when money’s tight and the writing isn’t going well and another of my friends has just been listed in Best Lawyers in America. What I can say is, I did what was right and necessary for me.

Like anyone with two careers, I’m constantly juggling. Nothing is ever in perfect balance. My law practice is still demanding. Writing projects always take longer than I expect. But, in the words of Sheriff Andy Taylor, “love don’t hold a stopwatch.”

Why, when you had an absorbing law career, did you take up fiction?

A convergence of circumstances.

I was working on a wrongful death case for the family of a woman who had killed herself in a hospital where she should have been on suicide watch. It was a devastating case—the woman was my age, a wife and working mother of four young children. The court set an expedited trial schedule, which meant I was working on the case day and night. Suddenly my life was all about death.

In the middle of that, I lost my father. He caught a cold, it turned to pneumonia and he died. He was fifty-eight.

It was as if someone had written in the sky, Life is short, Kim. Whatever you mean to do, do it now.

Writing was my first love. I had always written—poems, later songs, but never fiction; I didn’t think I had the material. Then I happened on a remaindered copy of Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From. Carver was new to me, and his stories knocked me out. I knew these characters; they were my people—hard-working, well-meaning people routinely sabotaged by their own demons. It hadn’t occurred to me that such familiar lives could be the subject of literature.

In the year after my father died I read all of Carver. Then I sat down and wrote my first short story, “Wild Turkey.” Woeful, as Joey of The Commitments would say, but it was a start. Within a few years I was publishing fiction.

I’ve outgrown my Carver infatuation, but I credit him with opening fiction writing for me in the same way Joni Mitchell says Bob Dylan opened songwriting for her—by showing that you can write about anything. It’s all material. The art is in how you see and express it.

Has your law practice informed your fiction writing?

Sure, and vice versa. Trial lawyers are storytellers. The difference is, in law, you’re working from a given set of facts, not making up your own. At trial, the attorney who can shape the facts into the most plausible and compelling story usually wins. It’s a matter of recognizing the telling details and deciding how to present them most effectively—through which witnesses and exhibits and in what order. One thing I’ve learned from law is the power of a timeline. Another thing: it’s important to remain open and curious while working up a case. One mistake lawyers can make—writers, too—is to decide too soon on a story. If you try too hard to make the evidence fit the story you want to tell, you’ll miss the real story. Juries, like readers, know when you’re forcing things or being a trickster.

Speaking of timelines, did you work from one with Byrd?

Not at first. I began in the middle of the story, with Addie’s pregnancy, and worked backward and forward from that. I kept a timeline as I worked, and referred to it as I shaped and revised the book, but it wasn’t my starting point.

What’s next?

I’m working on a historical novel about two sisters who get caught up in the Gastonia textile strike of 1929. When that one’s done, maybe we can talk politics.


Photo by Anthony Ulinski
Davidson County Public Library cup courtesy of Marty Hargrave