The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Kat Meads


Editor’s Note: When I asked Rumpus fave, Lidia Yuknavitch, to interview the quiet-yet-provocative force that is Kat Meads, I knew something interesting would result. Meads, long drawn to the overlap between history and fiction and to exploring the private side of political movements, has recently released a slyly intelligent, subversive novel, For You, Madam Lenin, focusing on Vladimir Lenin’s wife, Nadya Krupskaya, as well as other women drawn in to his turbulent orbit, including his mother-in-law and lover, and claiming their humanity and womanhood.  Here, these two unabashed feminist writers let loose on the “Fifty Shades of Shite” state of the publishing world, and what moves them to keep turning over the dirt.  —Gina Frangello


The Rumpus: I was reading an article about successful women writers in The Guardian this morning and their “list” of six used—shockingly—market value as the dip-stick. So the success and empowerment of women writers was once again inscribed by their selling power, which is how “Fifty Shades of Shite” writer lady made it onto the list… So partly what I want to ask you is bald and crass: how do we of the non-bestselling writer category keep from losing heart and shooting ourselves? HA! Here–lemme try and ask it more professionally: how does a woman writer invent self-worth every day of her life in the face of the market? How does she return to her lover art as a living and vital practice?

Kat Meads: Short answer: it ain’t easy. But then again, I remind myself in the dark of night and bright of day: it probably never has been easy, so stop your (my) whining and get the hell back to the desk. I’m not an optimistic sort—never have been. My M.O. is pretty much to expect bad news on a moment-to-moment basis. But I’m also high-grade obstinate. I can be knocked down (and have been, as a writer, LOTS), but I’m also very, very stubborn where my writing is concerned. One way or another, I crawl back to the desk and give it another go. That’s half the battle, right?Giving it another go?

Rumpus: I hear you. It never has been easy. But lately I’ve been thinking about how maybe we should also remember to keep making NOISE about that? So that the story “out there” doesn’t threaten to cover over how it really is for us? I guess I think we should quite carefully and precisely articulate over and over again to anyone who will listen what our personal path carvings look like. Okay, so for me, I tell myself DAILY, you are not about who buys you. You are about your relationship to writing. You are about your desire. You are about insisting that artmaking is a real place that you can inhabit and make room for others. You turn over dirt: revolution. Your turn.

Meads: “You are not about who buys you.” Great mantra! And of course absolutely true. But managing the “reaction” ingredient is wildly tricky, isn’t it? (Even when there’s no money involved.) The first comment to the first story of mine that ever got workshopped was this: “I don’t read stories that take place in a kitchen.” Bam. For weeks, I went around in a daze of bewildered anxiety. I have to avoid kitchens? I have to do this? I have to do that? It was an early lesson in do what you gotta do, trust your own brain—write about toenails, if so inspired. Because once you start doubting your own compass as a writer and turning your back on the subjects and material that make you want to write—zowee. You’re in deep, deep trouble. Also miserable.

Rumpus: GAH. Agreed. First comment I got on a story of mine that was workshopped: “Trite—it’s mostly about emotions.” Only my reaction was I wanted to take the guy out into a back alley after workshop and pop him one in the jaw. Sigh. But I LOVE what you say about never doubting your own compass as a writer. I’ve been through two different existential crises on this issue—once ten years ago, and once about two months ago. Our inner compasses are of our own making, and vital, and beautiful. Another way I stay sane about it all is—don’t laugh—listen to my own characters. They often reflect a bravery and sass that helps remind me that it’s in me, too. Which is a perfect way to turn to YOUR characters.

Kitty Duncan and Madam Lenin—talk a little bit about what drew you to them. I love them both so much, and I’m mightily interested in how complex women characters written by women are being received these days.

Meads: Jury’s still out on Madam Lenin, but Kitty Duncan? Dare I say she wasn’t exactly “embraced”? When Chiasmus and you and Andy published [The Invented Life ofKitty Duncan, I figured there’d be a certain amount of “she’s not a sympathetic character” commentary, but I was no way/no how prepared for the fury behind some of the responses. I visited a class in North Carolina and a student stood up, pointed at me as if I were the devil’s spawn, and started shrieking how much she despised Kitty Duncan, a “manipulator.” “I’ve known too many women like Kitty Duncan” was a critique I heard flabbergastingly often—and it wasn’t meant as a compliment to realistic rendering. I was mid-drunk at a party when this software guy, let’s call him Doug, sidled over to sniff, “Kitty Duncan—not very likeable,” which led me to do some shrieking of my own. She’s not supposed to be likeable, dickhead! That sort of thing. And then there were the hand-wringers, lamenting Kitty’s “fate.” In the end, she wasn’t “redeemed.” She wasn’t apologetic. She didn’t regret. Nope. Not sympathetic, not redeemed, not sorry. And not gonna be, even if there’s a “Kitty Duncan at ninety” sequel.

Rumpus: OH OH OH. Yep. I’ve experienced a similar “but Dora is unlikeable” thingee. Which has inspired in me a quote I’ve been throwing around that I may have made into t-shirts: “Holden Caulfield was a whiney little bitch and Humbert Humbert was a pedophile into teen muff. Neither was ‘likeable,’ nor did we need them to be.” You don’t have to agree with me, but I’m beginning to smell yet another gender bias when it comes to the reception of complicated women characters written by women. I wish I could go back and tell this “Doug” to a) go fuck himself; and b) study up on why. Literature. Matters. You know?

Meads: Sitting in on a session of your “educating” Mr. Dougie would make my week. Actually, it would make my month. I’m grinning ear to ear at the very thought… Two other candidates for your t-shirt list: the venerable Heathcliff and Madame Merle. I mean, what would The Portrait of a Lady be without Madame Merle?!

Rumpus: EXACTLY. For the record, Kitty and Madam Lenin are superb. No qualifying. Just superb. They are superb precisely because they are complicated. They don’t “fit” into lady writing-safe plots or some bozo list of lady character traits that make them easily consumable. This is why I love them. The itch and scratch and the inherited traits and plots for women characters. They are rebels. In fact, the rebel story as it plays out in the bodies of specifically women is a signature move and theme of yours, right?

Meads: Well, hey, thanks for that “superb.” And yes, I suppose I am drawn to rebellion as a subject. My first published novel, Sleep, made saints of Charlotte Corday and Rosa Luxemburg. And the thread that unites Kitty and Nadya K. is revolt—with the glaring difference that Kitty is in it for herself, and Nadya K. intended an entire country to benefit from her subversion.

Rumpus: YES. You are. Drawn to rebellion as a subject. I love that enormously about your literary projects. One of my favorite quotes in Madam Lenin reflects rebellion as subject/subjectivity:

“Beware the suggestive power of fairytales,” I used to tell my Nadya when she was a little girl. “Real life is not so simple. Goodness is never so pure. True evil is not so easily unmasked.”

Neither as a child nor as a young woman did my Nadya heed such cautionary advice. She believed with the whole of her being in the fairytale of revolution. And in that fairytale, Ilyich played the prince.

Meads: That passage comes from one of the elder Krupskaya’s, Yelizaveta’s, sections. Yelizaveta summing up the situation, laying out both sides of the argument. But in my author’s heart of hearts, no surprise, I lean toward the believe-with-the-whole-of-(one’s)-being stance. Otherwise…half-ass.

Rumpus: I think it’s safe to say we are both fascinated by history—and women IN history: how they are located, dislocated, relocated, how they are exiled or exumed… In Dora, I was beyond obsessed with the artistic act of pulling a voice and a body (Ida Bauer’s) out from the dead history of psychoanalysis, and bringing that voice and body back to life with ferociousness. Except that of course I didn’t pull her actual voice and body up through the dirt. I made a new subjectivity through fiction—one that could “speak back” to the forefathers. One thing I absolutely LOVE about For You, Madam Lenin is the “play” with history—how you bring these wonderfully smart, intense, emotional, funny women back up from history and restore their voices and bodies to the so-called grand events of political history. Part of me wants to get all semiotic and Kristeva-y here, but I’ll just leave it as a question—can you describe a little of that kind of fiction/history interplay, your process, what that exploration yielded for you?

Meads: I absolutely think you and I were on a similar mission regarding ferocious speak-back. In the “Interview with History” chapters of Madam Lenin, there are very few polite, accommodating, “pretty” answers from the female radicals to History’s questions. The majority of those interviewees assume, going in, they’ll be underrated and dismissed and they’re pissed about it. Very, very pissed. Writing-wise, those interviews were a total kick. At one point, I did worry that the interviews were starting to overshadow the Nadya Krupskaya narrative, but then I thought: they’re staying in. Because the novel is about more than Nadya Krupskaya. It pays homage to a slew of extraordinary—and extraordinarily under-sung—women radicals. If that makes for a strange little structure, so be it.

And that’s a good way to put it—our mutual fascination with women IN history. Lately, I’ve been reading/re-reading a lot about Zelda Fitzgerald—another Southern gal. In whichever text, when I get to the part where Scott’s dropping her off for lock-in at Highland Hospital, I find myself wanting to pry apart paragraphs in search of the invisible ink passages. The moment Zelda steps through those Highland Hospital gates, the history of Zelda and Scott starts to merge with the history of Dr. Carroll’s Sanitarium with its peanut butter lunches and daily hikes up the same hill and assumptions about “nervous” females. Stories upon stories upon stories. And so much of that missing from the official record.

Rumpus: Is feminism dead or just in dire need of a blow job?

Meads: Not dead, please, not dead! But it is a profoundly disheartening thing that that particular F word, in 2012, in certain quarters, is treated as a joke—or worse. Profoundly disheartening.

Rumpus: Yeah. I do think it might be time for a bump, though. Like perhaps we need to speak and write more openly about new forms and possibilities not trapped in former rhetoric or logics that don’t hold any longer… In both Kitty and Madam Lenin there are epic stories—one delves into Southern mythologies and codes, and the other in Russian geo-politics—what draws you to these kinds of stories? It seems to me—and feel free to slap me if I’m dead wrong about this—part of my pleasure as a reader comes from your insistence that small, personal, emotional intensities and micromovements are as epic as giant historical narratives. I adore that about your work. So what draws you to that kind of sentiment in fiction writing? Is it a feature to your life or lens on life as well?

Meads: I do insist that, don’t I? You caught me there. But what are giant historical narratives if not a composite of the small and intense? Southern mythologies I was weaned on—so all I had to do was be awake and breathing to take in that coded drama. My Russian fixation is more “peculiar,” as they say in the South, because I can’t really explain the “why” of it. I once heard the Russian Revolution referred to as “the last romantic revolution”—that stuck in my head. And, as you know, Trotsky puts in an appearance in Kitty Duncan—as does his wife, Natalia, who gets credit for doing all the typing. Typing is hard work. In my opinion.

Rumpus: What would you tell a woman writer in her twenties about the writerly life or building a writing career?  I can’t remember being twenty anymore, but boy howdy would I love to sit that girl down and have a chat…probably I’d have to tie the little she-devil to a chair. But seriously, I’ve been thinking a lot about our responsibility as published people to those who are waiting with fire and wonder…what do we tell them?

Meads: Brave woman to chat up your younger self, chair-strapped or otherwise! Across from my wide-eyed, twenty-year-old self, I’d have a hard time refraining from yanking Kathy Ann from that chair and shaking her until her teeth rattled. Listen up! Pay attention! Do you have any idea what it’s going to take—economically, personally—to write and keep writing? Not a clue had I. But I learned, as have all of us who’ve stuck it out. Some of the things I wish someone had told me, early on: if you can’t stand your own company for long stretches, pick another trade. If stringing words together/spinning paragraphs/revising endlessly doesn’t make you forget the rest of the world and everything in it, you probably need to rethink committing your twenties, thirties, and beyond to this particular pastime. I’d also pass along that pearl of Lidia Yuknavitch wisdom: find your tribe. Because that tribe of writers whose work and opinions you respect will be your support system in publishing times good and bad. And those are the folks who will remind you again and again (even as you pine for some of that bestseller cash to shore up your overdrawn bank account), that it’s all about the work. If I were queen of the queendom, it’s all about the work is the tattoo I’d require all writers to display, elbow to wrist. Pushing yourself and your art, your craft, experimenting out there on your own edge—what’s niftier than that?

Lidia Yuknavitch is the nationally bestselling author of the novels The Book of Joan, The Small Backs of Children, and Dora: A Headcase, and the memoir The Chronology of Water. She lives in Portland, OR. More from this author →