Katharine Coldiron is my brilliant friend. She’s a phenomenal book critic, an insightful essayist, and, with the publication of her novella, Ceremonials, forthcoming from KERNPUNKT Press in early 2020, a lyric novelist.
I read Ceremonials for the first time in early 2016 when Katharine asked for my feedback. I remember we talked about it for the first time at a table in the book fair at AWP Los Angeles. I was enchanted by the book, even in draft form. Now with beautiful illustrations by Mariana Magaña de Lio, Ceremonials sings. Inspired by the Florence and the Machine album of the same name, Ceremonials follows Amelia, a teenage girl that just lost her first love (and boarding school roommate), Corisande. Moving through her early adulthood in a dreamlike trance, Amelia has to choose between living in her body, in her own life, or maintaining her obsession with Corisande. Musical, ghostly with the grief of lost love, the novella thrums its way through my body like a love letter. (You can read an exclusive excerpt here.)
Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., the Times Literary Supplement, and Kenyon Review. Talking with her is like building a fort with ideas: thought by thought, concept by concept. We spoke about her process and the themes of the forthcoming book by video conference in October.
The Rumpus: I know the backstory of how you were inspired to write this novella, but can you tell me for those who don’t know?
Katherine Coldiron: I already really loved Florence and the Machine when Ceremonials came out in 2011, but the more I listened to the record, the more I fell in love with it, and felt sure there was a story in it. I decided to write what I perceived as the story. But in terms of where the actual story of Amelia and Corisande came from? I have no idea. I just came up with it. Another one of my influences was actually this movie, Therese and Isabelle by Radley Metzger. It’s based on a book by Violet Leduc that was published in French. It’s about two girls at a school who fall in love and they have a really unhappy ending. I mean, they’re both alive, so it’s a different unhappy ending than Ceremonials. Their affair is more physical; the prose has been criticized as too purple and flowery. I didn’t think that when I read it; I thought it was a beautiful book. And even though Metzger was sort of a sleazy Penthouse-type of filmmaker, it’s still a really good movie. The two female characters have all of this subjectivity and agency but they’re teenage girls, so they fight with each other and do stupid things. It’s an interesting film. And the book kind of convinced me that there was a real story there and that attaching it to the story that I heard in the album was a good idea. So, everything is a remix. I have no original ideas.
Rumpus: What came to you first? Was it Corisande and Amelia? Where did the Bull come from? Did the characters come from inspiration, or did they come from you deciding you needed additional things to happen to this character besides being sad about her dead girlfriend?
Coldiron: Mostly the second one. I knew that the most important thing to me about the book was going to be the atmosphere. I blew my wad in language instead of plot. I think I kind of skimped on characterization, too. I really wanted the book to be a companion to music, which meant that it couldn’t be too literary. It had to be more felt and experienced rather than read and thought about. I think that’s what separates it from the rest of my work, because it’s so much more of a felt experience. I kind of invented a narrative around the characters. The normal way is to come up with a character and then give that character conflicts that you build a story out of. Instead I built the atmosphere and then thought of these two characters that I can place in the atmosphere and then thought, okay, well, stuff has to happen to them. The Bull? I truly have no idea where that came from. It seemed like a good idea. I had to have someone who would appeal to Amelia enough to make her break her vow. And I knew that that had to be someone supernatural and the most masculine supernatural creature I could think of was the minotaur.
Rumpus: Identity is such a big deal in our current culture, but this book certainly doesn’t seem to take place in a time when people are openly flagging their sexual identity. I’m not sure that Amelia would call herself bisexual, but she sleeps with both men and women in this book. When I encounter bisexuality in literature, which is rare, it’s often a girl who has a fling with a woman. But here, the Bull seemed like Amelia’s exception. And the supernatural aspect made me ask, well, is he really a man?
Coldiron: Believe it or not, I took inspiration from our mutual teacher, Lidia Yuknavitch. In The Chronology of Water, she seemed primarily interested in women, although she married men. I thought that was an interesting way to move sexually in the world. So, with Amelia, it was partially about a girl who was mostly a lesbian but could not resist a man like the Bull or, I don’t know, Chris Evans, you know? I’m just thinking about my friend from college who is in her late thirties and she’s married to a woman and has been since she was in her twenties. They have kids together; they live in Massachusetts. She’s an entrenched lesbian. And she still has a crush on Jordan Catalano.
Rumpus: Don’t we all? Talk to me about the voice of this novella. I’ve read quite a bit of your writing and the way that you use language, it’s very different from the typical you I encounter on the page.
Coldiron: The truth is that I put myself in kind of a trance to write this book and the intention was to shave the language as close to the bone as I possibly could, to remove all the unnecessary words that make it frustrating to write gracefully. So all the articles, all the helping verbs, everything that was not necessary to get some kind of emotional point across, it all went out the window. And I think that that might make it a little bit incomprehensible, but it was a risk I was willing to take because I wanted the book to be ambiguous and dreamlike, and not fully processed through the brain. I wanted it to be processed through the body. And I do want to go back to bisexuality, too.
Rumpus: It’s curious to me how people manage to shift something like voice. What you’re saying is, you wrote something and then deliberately went through and edited out things that were too cerebral to get it to land this way?
Coldiron: I mean, it happened before I put it on the page. Because I draft everything by hand, I tend to think really hard about every word I write. And so it wasn’t as if I had a draft and then I went back and cut the fat out. Instead, every word had to be a poetic word. I wasn’t gonna put it on the page if it was just the or an or if.
Rumpus: So go back and tell me more about bisexuality.
Coldiron: I agree with you that there are too few bisexual characters in literature. This is the second novel that I’ve written with a bisexual main character. And I really think that there should be more of them. Often what happens is they pass until they start making jokes about not being straight. I’m thinking of Eleanor Shellstrop on The Good Place who is clearly bisexual, but you don’t figure it out until later because she primarily dates men. That’s sort of the dilemma of being bi with a male partner—you pass and feel kind of funny. And I know because I’m married to a man and so I was living out this fantasy of primarily dating women when I wrote Amelia.
Rumpus: What era do you think this book takes place in?
Coldiron: I fudge that a lot because there are no jukeboxes in the 1920s. And no freedom for lesbians in the 1940s. So I kind of cherry-picked. I mean, definitely in the early twentieth century because weirdly, that’s the period of time I’m most familiar with aside from what I’ve lived through. But I did say, well I want the dresses from this era and I want the haircuts from this era and I want the heady, music-based, “everything is permissible” thing from this era. And I shoved it all in a blender.
Rumpus: That’s how it reads. You can’t pin it to an era. It’s not tied to research like a period piece. I was trying to use the music as a reference, thinking, for example that if people are singing Gershwin…
Coldiron: Yeah, the music. If you’re as obsessed with 1930s movies as I am, you quickly learn that the Great American Songbook was all composed within a five-year period, with some outliers that were composed ten years later or earlier. The side of me that writes cerebrally was frustrated that I didn’t just pick an era and stick with it, but I didn’t. I wanted to have it both ways. I wanted Djuna Barnes and Anaïs Nin, but I also wanted to have a jukebox. I think that there are readers who will think that I’m less serious for doing that, but I don’t care.
Rumpus: But it adds to this otherworldly or dreamy quality, where we can’t quite catch our bearings. It’s a ghost story, for God’s sake. There’s points where, as a reader, I’m not even sure that Amelia lives in the real world.
Coldiron: Part of me never left David Lynch’s universe after college. Creatively, part of me never left the world of the [Florence and the Machine] album, which has a bunch of different eras all mixed together. Like there’s this art deco sensibility that happens and there’s electronica and then it’s mixed with harp and it’s all blended together.
Rumpus: So talk to me about the role of singing and music as a theme in the book.
Coldiron: The whole time as I was writing in this trance, I was thinking, okay, keep steering it back to music, keep steering it back to music. I was thinking about making music an integral part of the plot and characterization of this book.
Rumpus: Yeah, you did that. There’s places in this book where it almost feels like it should be audio. I had an aural experience of this book alongside the imaginative one, which is a weird thing because reading is usually a silent process. So it’s obviously all taking place in my head, but I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced that so potently in a piece of literature as I do in this one.
Coldiron: That’s a massive compliment. And thank you, because I hoped so. My original vision was for the book and the album to lean on each other like two cards. Instead of one depending completely on the other, they would prop each other up suitably. Obviously I’m a little bitty nobody and Florence and the Machine is Florence and the Machine. But my hope was that if you listened to the book, then you would want to read the album.
Rumpus: I don’t know if you did it on purpose, but you switched your verbs there and it’s actually perfect.
Coldiron: I did do it on purpose. It was exactly what I meant. I was thinking of synesthesia.
Rumpus: Tell me about selling this book, because it’s a strange length and a ghost/lesbian love story. How’d you pitch that?
Coldiron: I didn’t. Here’s the truth: I did not think that I would ever publish this book. I didn’t think anyone would ever want it. I didn’t know where to start because the length is so odd that novella presses didn’t want it. All of the places that I thought would work had word limits that were either too high or too low for how long this book is. I tried a couple of contests for experimental literature because I guess it’s experimental. I couldn’t really pin down how, maybe the shifting voice, I’m not sure. I’ve read weirder shit, but it’s pretty weird. And it didn’t get any traction there. I tried one agent who immediately said no because it was a novella (as opposed to even asking me what it was about).
I got so frustrated after querying a bunch of people and eliminating a bunch of people and getting rejections that I bitched about it on Twitter as politely as I possibly could. I said, this is a really frustrating process because I know this is a good book. I don’t think it will be the first one that I sell, but I’ve been trying, and it’s my baby and I hate it getting rejected and KERNPUNKT Press reached out on Twitter and said, “Hey, we’d love to have a look at your book.” But that was after almost two years of sending it to every place that could possibly want it and getting rejected. I can’t even tell you how many different small presses I looked up and researched, only to find there was no way they would take a book of this length. It’s in the dozens. So I’m very grateful that KERNPUNKT took a chance.
Rumpus: Talk to me about the experimental shifting voice you mentioned.
Coldiron: Every chapter is narrated in a different voice. It goes back and forth between mainly Amelia and Corisande but there are also chapters that are narrated by the ghost girls. This is very pretentious, but I was thinking about The Sound and the Fury and how when you read The Sound and the Fury, it gets easier to read with each section. The first section is impossible to read. But then the fourth section is very chill, simple narration. And I was thinking about Amelia being in absolutely destructive grief at the very beginning of the book. She can barely string sentences together. That means that the beginning of the book is hard, which is a risk that Faulkner can take. I’m not sure I can. Nevertheless, I did.
Rumpus: Well it was a delight to read Ceremonials again and I’m excited for other people to read it. And I do think that if teenage girls get their hands on this book? I mean, I would have been carrying this thing around, reading it obsessively. So I hope that that happens for you.
Coldiron: I hope so, too. If I reach just one fucked-up teenage girl, that will make me very happy.
Photograph Katharine Coldiron by Barbara Manuel Potter.