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Author Interview: Kristen Iskandrian

July 28, 2017 | Charlotte Donlon

I got to spend some time with local author Kristen Iskandrian yesterday. We talked about books, writing, and her first novel Motherest which I definitely recommend. This coming-of-age story explores the dynamics of complex relationships with detailed scenes, fantastic prose, and a cast of vivid characters that leave you wanting more.

In its starred review, Publishers Weekly names Iskandrian as a “writer to watch” and calls Motherest a “stellar first novel” that is a “delightful and satisfying reading experience.” Kirkus calls Motherest “a powerfully perceptive story written with love, realism, and humor” that is “heartbreaking, hilarious, and poignant—often at the same time.” Booklist says it’s simply “a brilliant debut.”

Church Street will be at Desert Island Supply Co. on Tuesday, August 1 from 6-9 p.m. for the Motherest Launch Party. All are invited to attend!

You can learn more about Kristen, her book (including a fabulous playlist!), and read more of her work at www.kristeniskandrian.com.

Charlotte Donlon: When did you start writing?

Kristen Iskandrian: I kept a diary as a kid, as many people do. I kept it up for a long time, and they were super boring—just records of my day—but I was very superstitious about having to write these entries every night. There was some compulsion within me that made me sit down at the end of each day and write stuff like the weather and what I ate. As soon as I was old enough to write letters, I wrote them to everybody. It’s a form that’s very near and dear to my heart, which is probably one reason why I incorporated letters in my book. You can reveal characters in such an intimate way. On one level, Motherest is an homage to letter writing.

CD: Which writers did you admire when you were a child?

KI: I loved Madeleine L’Engle’s books. I kept going with her when a lot of people stopped, say, after A Wrinkle in Time. I loved The Austin Family books. She also had two YA books, one is called The Small Rain and one is called Camilla and they were really big for me in my early teen years. I still think about those books.

CD: What are some of your favorite children’s books?

KI: I have so many, and I love talking about books for kids. Goodnight Moon is an amazing book. I also love The Velveteen Rabbit and The Frog and Toad books. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble is another favorite. We have a CD of James Earl Jones reading that book and he totally does it justice, as you can imagine.

CD: What books are on your to-read list?

KI: Made for Love by Alissa Nutting, Eat Only When You’re Hungry by Lindsay Hunter, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. Can Xue’s The Last Lover. And poetry, so much good new(ish) poetry: Solmaz Sharif’s Look and Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé.

CD: What is your favorite under appreciated novel?

KI: A year or so ago a friend loaned me The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck. It definitely got attention, but whenever I mention it to people no one seems to have read it. It’s a beautiful book. I also adore The Summer Book by Tove Jansson.

CD: How has your writing changed since you wrote your first published story?

KI: My first story was published in 2005 or 2006. I was in graduate school and submitting really widely and getting rejected all the time. I still get plenty of rejections, but I think I’ve learned a lot in ten years, about how to be more direct, how to better avoid clichés of both emotion and expression. I used to be more flowery, more interested in clever ways of saying the thing. Eventually I learned how to be direct and (hopefully) interesting in the same moment.

CD: What surprised you most about Motherest once it was complete?

KI: I think just that it was complete! I felt this total astonishment that it was finished.

CD: It’s such a perfect ending.

KI: It’s really the only ending that made sense to me.

CD: I love the details in your scenes. Were there any scenes that were hard for you to write or any that kind of wrote themselves?

KI: It’s a very character-driven novel, and once I inhabited the characters, and made certain decisions about their fates, the scenes felt pretty organic. I mean it’s always hard to find the words that do the mood or the moment justice. That’s every writer’s struggle—how do you get the scene to match what’s in your head? But I don’t think there were any scenes that were harder to write than others. To me, it was sort of uniformly difficult, with these bursts of grace and clarity.

CD: I love how you write about sex in the book. Do you have any thoughts on your approach or advice to other writers about how to write about sex?

KI: In three words—keep it awkward! That’s what I prefer, anyway, when I read sex scenes. As a reader, when you know it’s coming, your bullshit detector is on high alert because there are so many terrible ways to write about sex. In a book like this, I think you have to make it kind of gritty and tactile and fraught—the way that it often is in real life.

CD: What does literary success look like to you?

KI: I just cherish the work so much. I have a day job and children, so it feels luxurious to me to carve out time to write, even though it takes a lot of strategizing and keeping weird hours. But I think as long as I can keep doing the work, I will feel successful. I don’t mean to be cheesy about it, but that’s truly how I feel.

CD: How will you celebrate on August 1st?

KI: I’m happy that we’re having the DISCO launch on the same day as publication, and I hope it feels like a kind of birthday party! Mostly I’m just excited and ready to send the book off into the world, to let it go.

Charlotte lives in Homewood with her husband and their two children. She’s earning an MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University, and she does freelance writing and copywriting. You can find her online at www.charlottedonlon.com and on Twitter at @charlottedonlon.

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