Sunday, February 3, 2008

Loaded Questions: Interview with Kate Maloy author of Every Last Cuckoo

Every Last Cuckoo

In Kate Maloy's last book, A Stone Bridge North, she looked at the Quaker faith in the north. Both Quaker faith and the north play a part in Maloy's newest book, Every Last Cuckoo. The book begins during a particularly severe Vermont winter when 75-year-old Sarah Lucas' husband, Charles, dies. Sarah, grief-stricken, delves into her past, remembering the Great Depression, a time when her parents welcomed countless friends and relations into their home. Sarah also laments on some of the missteps she made as a parent. A chance to rectify and relive all of these situations appear when Sarah's own teenage granddaughter; an Israeli pacifist; a devastated young mother and child— arrive, all seek shelter and solace in Sarah's too-empty home. The remainder of the book delves into the experiences of Sarah and her new guests as they overcome, together, some of the darkest periods of their past.

Kelly: Every Last Cuckoo came out just a few days ago. What kind of feelings were you having in the days before the book's release?

Kate: I'm sure I felt what all authors do--excited, nervous, and a bit obsessed with Amazon numbers. I'd worked so closely and lovingly on this book, with my marvelous editor, Andra Olenik, and now it was about to go out among strangers. I wanted them to treat it kindly. I wanted even the most critical reviews and responses to teach me something, not just bring me down. So far, my wishes have been granted beyond my hopes.

Kelly: Have you received any feedback from your readers yet?

Kate: I have, and it's so gratifying! A few librarians have sent me email saying they loved the book and will recommend it to all their clients who read literary fiction. Several readers have written to say how moved they were by the events in the book and by the writing itself. One woman told me that certain passages were like poetry, and she was reading them aloud to anyone who would listen. I'm touched and amazed that people take the time to write, often in detail.

Kelly Hewitt: I have read quite a bit about A Stone Bridge North, a non fiction work in which you share a great deal about your life and the changes that you were undergoing at the time. What kind of reaction did you get from your friends and family when that book was published? Do you have any updates for readers who read and enjoyed A Stone Bridge North?

Kate Malloy: My friends and family were immensely supportive, with the exception of two women who appear in the book. I had been friends with them for twenty years or so, but they disapproved of my actions--falling in love with someone I'd met online, moving away with him--and they were upset that I wrote about the pain and bewilderment of our broken friendships. I'm no longer in touch with them, but I still feel occasional pangs of sadness and disappointment.

The major update on the Stone Bridge story is that my husband and I are no longer in Vermont. We spent five years there and loved it. We meant to stay forever, but serious health problems forced us to seek a milder climate. It was wrenching to leave, and I cried as we drove our giant U-Haul through Montpelier in the middle of the night, feeling like a fugitive. But now we live on the coast of Oregon, in a small village that's quiet for the dark, rainy half of the year and swells to many times its size in the warmer and brighter seasons. Here, between the mountains and the Pacific Ocean, we've found marvelous friends, work a communal vegetable garden with six others, and have become involved in efforts to make our community as self-sustaining as possible.

Kelly:'s “Can't Miss: This Week's Best Offerings" feature wrote that your new book, Every Last Cuckoo, is an "impressive step in a new literary direction." In what way do you believe this book is headed in a new literary direction?

Kate: That comment really startled me at first--until I realized that the reviewer was saying my novel represents a new direction for me, Kate Maloy, as a writer. It's my first book of fiction, and I'm glad that it's been well received so far. But I'm not paving any new literary ground in general, just hoping for my own spot in territory already laid out by others.

Kelly: I really like the setting of this book. The cabin where Mordechai is writing, the big house that is soon filled with people and life. It made me wonder where you were when writing this book. The reader in me assumes that you're in Vermont in a house that looks very much like the big house, looking out the window. Do I have an over active imagination?

Kate: There's no such thing as an overactive imagination, unless it leads to dangerous or dire thoughts. You are right that I was in a big house in Vermont, with windows that looked out over a broad clearing, nearby woods, and distant mountains. But the house in the book is different. It's an old farmhouse, set on level ground, whereas our house in Vermont was a one-time cottage that grew and grew over many years and was set on very uneven ground. Nearly every room was connected to other rooms by short stairways. The whole house followed the contours on which it was set.

Kelly: So you've moved to Oregon, leaving the state of Vermont, which you write about in A Stone Bridge North and set Every Last Cuckoo in. Are there particular aspects of living in Vermont that you miss?

Kate: I miss snow! I miss the smaller scale of things, the rounder contours of the land, the preponderance of hardwoods in the forests, the New England architecture, the brilliant colors of autumn, the layout of towns around a clear center. Here, on the Oregon coast, a single highway connects all the towns like beads on a string, so there are no real town centers, just long stretches of commercial enterprises lining Route 101. The side roads take you to the neighborhoods, the beaches, the mountain trails and farms or ranches. The larger side roads--most of them two-lane, numbered routes--run parallel to the many rivers that flow down from the mountains and into the sea. So everything looks and feels different, here. It took some getting used to, but now I love it. Moving here, and having moved often in my life, has taught me that I can miss former homes with all my heart and still find new places to love. It's the same with people. I'll always miss those who are far away, no matter how many others I may meet and love.

Kelly: Your last book was very personal and revealing. How did the experience of writing A Stone Bridge North differ from that of Every Last Cuckoo? Do you think that there are still revealing things about you yourself embedded in your fiction?

Kate: In many ways, it was much scarier releasing Stone Bridge to the world than sending Cuckoo out there. It did feel like exposing some nerves, since I began that book largely as a private journal, with no real self-censorship. But I addressed this in the introduction, saying--more or less--that we all have secrets and stories, we're all vulnerable, and the more we acknowledge that and take the risk of openness, the more we'll feel connected to others and the less we'll feel separated and fearful.

There is much about me in my fiction, too, but that's a different story (as it were). There, I draw on personal experience, observations about the world and people around me, and some deeply held values and beliefs. But these are (or should be) more or less invisible; they're like the warp threads in a tapestry, which are not seen themselves but support the threads that create the pattern.

Kelly: If you were to pick one character out of the great ensemble you have created to write another novel about, which one would you choose?

Kate: That's a hard question! I love them all and would find it difficult to choose. Lottie could be a good main character--a young woman just starting out, with the strong example of her grandmother helping her along. Mordechai would be another. I admire him, and he's the favorite character of many. Then there's Tess, who intrigues me. And the two young women, who have lost so much, Josie and Sandy. This is probably why I won't write a sequel. Every character in Cuckoo is compelling to me in one way or another.

Kelly: This is the question every author faces and every interview includes. Have you begun working on your next book?

Kate: I'm currently revising a second novel for what feels like the hundredth time. It's very, very different from Cuckoo, despite some shared themes, and it has presented me with a whole new set of challenges. I might decide to shelve it for a while and start a third one, which has begun clamoring for attention. What I've learned from writing Cuckoo, and from drafting this second novel, is how much more will always remain to be learned. I love the process, which is a good thing, because the frustrations usually come before the rewards.


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