Kristen Iskandrian’s first novel, Motherest, is told in first-person by 18-year-old Agnes, who lives in “the middle of a New Jersey nowhere” and has just begun college in “the middle of a New England nowhere” in 1993. Soon after arriving at college, Agnes learns that her mom, who has a history of unexpectedly disappearing, has left home. In each chapter, Agnes describes her life at college and also writes a letter to her mom—“If I had stayed, would you have stayed?” Her older brother Simon, who has committed suicide, is another missing figure in the book. Living in a “post-Simon, post-mother world,” Agnes one night in a library imagines “passing out” from loneliness—“an actual concussion of loneliness.” Then she meets someone, becomes pregnant, and moves home to live with her dad. She seems to both want and not want the baby. In a letter to it, embedded in a letter to her mom, she writes: “Sorry that I didn’t want you, didn’t plan you, sorry that I routinely fear your arrival.” At an ob-gyn practice, when asked how she feels, she answers “Pretty good” but tells the reader “Suicidal, elated, nauseous, starving, sore, waterlogged with exhaustion, terrified.”
I met Kristen online in 2006 and we’ve met once in person, also in 2006, when I had a reading in Athens, Georgia. We didn’t talk much in person, but I remember, at dinner with people, overhearing Kristen say things that were funny and unexpected. Agnes is also like this. For this interview, we spoke on Google hangouts and by email.
THE BELIEVER: What books or authors inspired, motivated, or influenced you while writing Motherest?
KRISTEN ISKANDRIAN: Oh, God. I feel like I sort of prayed to every book I ever loved while I wrote Motherest, to be worthy, to take part. I thought a lot about Madeleine L’Engle, whose books The Small Rain and Camilla were favorites of mine as a teenager. Lydia Davis, Jenny Offill, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be, The Stranger by Camus, essays by Mary Ruefle, The Woman Destroyed and A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir. Joy Williams, Jeanette Winterson, Virginia Woolf. A lot of women writers. And I feel this weird debt to Henry James for his insanely dense sentences, which I found myself thinking about from time to time.
BLVR: What do you like to share when people ask you what Motherest is about?
KI: In terms of sharing the “about”—quite possibly my least favorite question—I tend to share very little. I don’t think I have ever asked anyone what a book is about; it’s like asking someone to tell you who they really are.
BLVR: What’s the little you do share?
KI: “It’s a coming-of-age story” or: “It’s about a girl and college and her family.” If I’m being totally honest, I think I feel a certain level of a) embarrassment or self-consciousness and b) resentment, like, how do you expect me to sound-byte this thing I’ve worked so hard on for so long!?
BLVR: If someone asked me what your book was about, I would share what physically happens in it, as I did in this interview’s introduction. I feel that readers won’t lose anything from knowing the overall story—because of the language, ideas, scenes, characters, pregnancy, and the unknown of when/if Agnes’ mom will return—but that knowing the story may interest them in exploring it, in zooming into it, by reading the whole book.
KI: I think you’re right, in that a book is always more than its “about,” and different people could tell the “same story” in infinite ways. I think I just generally try to avoid any kind of reductive conversation, maybe? Even talking politics with people with whom I share a “side” can be annoying.
BLVR: I was impressed by how real and complex the supporting characters—Joan, Nancy, Alice, Jenny, Jeremy—seemed, as if they existed not to help the story but as volitional beings that Agnes (and also you) encountered and had to deal with. How do you think you achieved this?
KI: Re: the supporting characters, thanks so much for saying that. I’m really glad they felt actualized to you. I remember learning in an acting class in college about props and “busy work” on stage—that eyesore of someone pretending to drink a supposedly full, hot cup of coffee, but they’re flinging it around. I guess it’s a little like that, in my mind. If the character is going to be there, they should be there with complexity.
BLVR: I liked your dialogue a lot—it used many ellipses and sounded realistically awkward, comical, emotional, indirect, repetitive, vague, complex. “Have you… is it… have you heard from your mom or anything,” says Agnes’ dad to Agnes. Was the dialogue hard to write? Did you say it aloud?
KI: I really like writing dialogue. And yes, I always speak it aloud. Sometimes I think I’m too invested in making it “too real”—I want to capture those pauses and gaps, those blips of misunderstanding—because then I’ll read a book with very swift, unhesitating dialogue, and really admire that choice, to forgo realism in favor of the, I don’t know, hyperreal? But for this, for Agnes, those floundering moments are, I think, important.
BLVR: The kind of realism in your dialogue was also conveyed in physical movements (“He sort of high-fives my shoulder”) and sounds (“He makes a noise like a snort and a cough”), which I also enjoyed.
KI: Sometimes I would actually enact those physical moments.
BLVR: You’ve told me the manuscript had been saved, for years, as “AGNES.doc.” How did that become Motherest?
KI: I *hate* titles. I felt a lot of angst over it. I honestly had an easier time naming my children. I tried to find phrases in the book that might work as titles, but I don’t always love that, and in this case, I couldn’t find anything that felt right, like it could carry the whole book. We sold the book as MOTHER, MOTHERER, MOTHEREST, a title I’m still fond of for how it positions Agnes and her mother and her ideology of mother—but it started to feel cumbersome as time went on. So then I thought, what if I took the “best” element from that premise, and left it there? The superlative mother. The Mt. Everest of mother, as I think my friend John Woods said once.
BLVR: When did you start writing Motherest? What has the process been since then?
KI: I started Motherest in 2010. I had written another manuscript during graduate school that was this novel-in-stories, where I was experimenting a lot with form, which is, I guess, what you do in graduate school. I remember feeling the thrill of beginning something totally new. My process is slow and relatively unexciting. I’m not a big note-taker, nor do I have any kind of system of index cards or diagrams of character brainstorming or anything like that. I sort of just write, “learn by going where I have to go” sort of thing. I “finished” the manuscript in the fall of 2014. During those four years Beatrice went from being a toddler to a first grader. I had another baby. I stopped adjuncting and started freelancing, then stopped freelancing when I got my current job. We moved from Athens to Birmingham. So lots of changes, and many periods of working on the novel very little, or switching to other projects, feeling stuck, etc. My agent offered a lot of notes before she pitched it. We went back and forth a few times. After it sold, there was an interval of just sort of waiting for things to begin, and then the editing process started in earnest, and it was a really positive experience. It felt collaborative and interesting and occasionally painful, which I think is necessary.
BLVR: Was it surprising that the editing began in earnest so long after you “finished” the book? Did you expect many more rounds of editing (via agent then editor), or did you think it was finished in 2014?
KI: I tend to be very painstaking, editing as I go, so when I “finished” it in 2014, while I knew, theoretically, that there would be edits, I had no idea just how many there would be, and how long it would take—how long it actually takes—to make an actually “finished” book. It’s funny to me now, to think that the version I turned in to my agent, and even the first, early round of edits I did with my editor, could have produced the final book. We trimmed a lot—I think close to 40K words?
BLVR: How many words is the finished book?
KI: I think we’re in the 75K word range? And originally it was about 110 or so? A lot of it was trimming, pruning bit by bit, which added up by the end, and (I think) makes for a more compelling read.
BLVR: What was one memorable cut?
KI: There was a character called “The Asker” in the first draft, who would appear to Agnes when she was alone and ask series of questions. By the final third of the novel, The Asker hardly appeared at all, which was an interesting way to learn that she existed more for me, the writer, than for the book.
BLVR: I wouldn’t have suspected there was a character called The Asker in an earlier draft.
KI: Maybe I’ll save her for later. (Also that’s probably a good sign.)
BLVR: It does seems like a good sign—that you fully edited her out, and also that the novel felt final.
KI: Exactly. This is why good editors are crucial. Thinking about it now, I think The Asker was a way—and probably a lazy one—for me to try to access Agnes’s subconscious. I had to find another route.
BLVR: You’ve told me that you’ve enjoyed cutting more over time, that you came to view the technique as definitely improving a book, whereas before you weren’t as sure. How did this evolution happen?
KI: That’s a good question. I think I felt for a long time this sense of having “fought for” every word, phrase, sentence. I’m compulsively critical of how my sentences “sound”—there has to be a pleasing cadence when I read it aloud. Every writer has to find those words that both substantively and stylistically serve the story—for me, this takes a long time, and I can’t, for instance, just “get it down,” pound out the plot. The precise words become the plot. Obviously it’s easy for all of this to become both precious and insane. At a certain point during our edits, something just shifted, and I felt like—oh, these are just words, and there are so many of them, and this might not be the “fat” novel I’d anticipated at one point, quality over quantity, etc. I gave myself permission to enjoy the takedown, and felt real pleasure when I saw how it improved the book.
BLVR: I enjoyed your prose, which I thought of as fractal. I imagined each sentence starting as three words (“I feel shy”) and you zooming in to create six (“My face feels out of control”), eight (“He who is, after all, there, home, alone”), ten, twenty, thirty, or more word sentences, with a ~50-word sentence every few pages. The variety made me read slower and increased my attention, as opposed to prose where I go into a sort of half-conscious reading. A prose style with your level of variety seems, in a way, easier to edit-down, because everything is already jagged and diverse and so unruinable. Did you save the sentences you cut?
KI: I’d love to know how much Libby (my editor) “struggled” with the edits. I will say that most of her suggestions were, as you guessed, pretty clean. I have a Motherest folder on my desktop that is filled with all the various drafts, so yes, everything is there, though digging through it seems like a nightmare to me right now.
BLVR: At what point in the editing-down process do you feel pleasure? When you make the deletion? Reread the passage? Look over what you’ve deleted?
KI: All three! I vividly recall highlighting a paragraph and sort of 1-2-3ing it, just, delete and done. I probably even held my breath because I’m a dork. And it was this odd rush, reading the paragraph before and after it, and feeling how they fused together in a new and satisfying way.
BLVR: What about the unpleasurable aspects of editing-down, the indecision?
KI: Indecision is awful, and I was riddled with it at many points. I’d read the part(s) in question aloud, again and again. I’d find myself eating things I wasn’t hungry for. It’s a certain kind of fugue state, being stuck like that. (PS it just started thundering really loud.) Most often it helps me to leave it alone, work on something else, fold some laundry or take a walk, use my body. More than once I’d ask my husband “what do you like better”—and, if I couldn’t arrive somewhere on my own, go with whatever he said.
BLVR: Where are you now?
KI: Sitting at my desk, in my “office.” (Which is in my house.)
BLVR: What is in your office?
KI: My desk is pretty narrow with no drawers. It might technically be a “console table.” On it are some pads of paper, some artwork my kids made, an hourglass, a pen holder, and my computer. Then I have a 3-drawer file cabinet with a printer/scanner on top of it. On my right is a wooden cube chest thing, above which is a small old glass medicine cabinet with some weird stuff in it like a Poe figurine and a Liberty Bell replica. Over it sits a framed photo of me as a kid, and a statue of Mary with most of her face rubbed off. There’s a rocking chair, lamp, and a small end table covered w/ books. And finally another small table with a record player and some records.
BLVR: How old are your daughters?
KI: Beatrice is 8 and Simone is 5.
BLVR: What do they know about your novel?
KI: Beatrice called it a “novel” the other day, which surprised me because previously they both only ever referred to it as my “book.” They like the cover, and Beatrice knows that it’s about a girl character and her mother, I think. What most excites them is their names in the Acknowledgments section, they like flipping to that part.
BLVR: Have they read novels?
KI: Beatrice has read a lot of novels, yes. Right now she’s super into Harry Potter.
BLVR: When do you think they’ll read your novel?
KI: I don’t know. I wonder if they’ll be interested in it? My wish for them would be to read it when they’re on their own, grown, or maybe to never read it, or maybe to read it after I’m gone.
BLVR: Motherest’s range of emotions, density of language and tone, and the name Agnes reminded me of Lorrie Moore, who has a story titled “Agnes in Iowa.” Because of this—and that I know you like Moore’s writing—I searched my Gmail for “Kristen Iskandrian” and “Lorrie Moore” and it returned 23 results, including this from 2008:
me: how old before you give your child richard yates novels
Kristen: i have a ball, i sit on it a lot
me: adol en scene
Kristen: 7th or 8th grade maybe, or early high school
first lorrie moore maybe, then ‘graduate’ to richard yates
KI: I miss that ball. And I guess I feel like you find the books you need when you need them. I don’t know how actively I’ll choose certain books for them to read.
BLVR: Do you and Beatrice discuss the novels she reads?
KI: Yes, we do. She likes to share parts with me that she thinks are funny or exciting or sad.
BLVR: What’s a part Beatrice found sad?
KI: About a year ago she read Old Yeller, and she was heartbroken when Travis shot the dog. She recounted that part again and again.
BLVR: What’s a part Beatrice found funny?
KI: She liked that iconic dinner table scene in Ramona the Brave, where Ramona announces that she’s going to say a bad word, and there’s all this build up, and then she closes her eyes and clenches her fists and yells “GUTS! Guts guts guts!” Beatrice read it out loud to me and took a lot of pleasure in it.
BLVR: On your blog on July 12, you said you signed up for “bookstore bootcamp.” What is that?
KI: Bookstore bootcamp is a several days long workshop run by a consulting firm that specializes in helping people open and run independent bookstores. I’d really like to do this here in Birmingham, and I need all the information I can get.