Today it is my pleasure to introduce writer Lisa D. Kastner of the Humna Humna blog for this week’s Feature Artist Interview.
Greetings Lisa, and thank you for joining us at Brainripples for an interview. I’ve been admiring your writing since joining the Philadelphia Writers’ Critique Group in 2006. To give our readers some background, could you tell us about your own beginnings as a writer?
Jade, thank you for inviting me to Brainripples. When you first mentioned the interview, I was quite flattered (and still am). The cliché answer is that when I was a pre-teen and teen I maintained a journal. At the time, I focused on writing music lyrics (I am a music junky). My writing interests expanded to include poetry (albeit rather bad poetry). I later dabbled in short stories and wrote for my own enjoyment.
My senior year of high school, my father asked that I pursue a degree useable in a corporate or business setting (Of course, I wanted to pursue a theatrical degree.) Needless to say, I obtained a Communications degree and for more than ten years provided business writing consultative services to Fortune 500 companies.
A few years after graduation, I realized that writing for business assisted in honing my self editing skills but I was losing my creative expression. One Saturday I awoke with an image that I had to put on paper. That afternoon I wrote the first rendition of the short story A Half (which you so kindly provided great feedback). I stepped away from my computer knowing I needed to write fiction.
Unsure of my skills, I attended the Philadelphia Writers Conference and submitted the short story. Believe me, I was quite fearful that my workshop leader, Chris Bowman, would turn to me, point and say “WHY are YOU here? You think you can write?”
Of course this scenario never occurred. Instead he pulled me aside and said that I had to write. He said I had the gift and I should actively pursue writing. This feedback was exactly what I needed. The conference was six years ago and I have been writing prose ever since.
Lisa Kastner is the Vice President of Pennwriters. Lisa, would you like to tell us a little about the organization and your goals as VP?
Pennwriters’ mission is to help writers of all levels, from the novice to the award-winning and multi-published, improve and succeed in their craft. My official role as the VP is basically to do whatever our President asks me to do. Luckily, Barbara Lockwood is a very kind and generous President. Much of what I do is shadow her and act as a sounding board for her, our board, and members of the organization.
On a personal level, I took the role of VP because I always valued the encouragement provided by Chris Bowman and then later on by many workshop leaders, teachers, editors, and peers. Whenever I doubted my ability, a kind soul pulled me from my slump and reinforced that I am a writer and that I have talent. I wanted to be in a position to do the same for other new writers. What better way than to be on the board of an organization dedicated to helping writers?
The worst feeling in the world when you first pursue writing, as either a hobby or a profession, and wonder “Should I do this? Am I a truly talented writer or are the words I put on the page something only a family member would appreciate?”
Brainripples readers can find your blog Humna Humna in the sidebar. Will you be blogging about the upcoming 2008 Annual Pennwriters Conference in Lancaster PA?
During the conference, I would love to see attendees blog about it. I think reading about it from the perspective of attendees is much more interesting. This enables us to see the varying perspectives and thereby obtain a fuller and more interesting picture of the events.
Prior to the actual conference, I will post updates regarding the activities on Humna Humna.
Your fiction is often set in the Pennsylvania / New Jersey region. What aspect(s) of the local culture do you find most inspiring for your work?
Excellent question. Admittedly, I don’t write about Pennsylvania and New Jersey intentionally. I often begin writing a piece based on an image or a sentence or an idea and then follow that stream of conciousness. After time, I review what’s on the page to find prominent themes and how I can develop them.
When I was the Features Editor of the Picolata Review, one of my favorite questions was, “Do you think environment plays a major role in your writing?” Emphatically the answers were yes. I agree but I think the reason I write about the cultures in PA and NJ is because I grew up in the area surrounded by quirky and interesting people.
I’m attracted to those who are a touch outside the norm or on the fringe. I like to figure out why they do what they do … in essence, how they think. (Probably because I am a self-proclaimed “person on the fringe”.) Usually these same people exist in environments as complex as themselves. Believe me, there are some areas of Pennsylvania and New Jersey that are the typical USA neighborhoods, I just don’t write about them.
Your fiction also often includes themes of urban life and the human experience, as well as – shall we say – the darker shades of life and mind. Could you describe some of your successes (or challenges) with writing accessible, compelling characters from such chilling perspectives?
Even those in the depths of darkness have light. A yin and a yang. But their yin and yang are out of balance. The key is finding that bit of light and allow the reader to see it and to experience it. In A Half a woman who lost her twin sister is in a panic and races through her childhood home. She hallucinates or imagines that she is reexperiencing her sister’s drowning. At the end of the piece, the reader discovers why this trek was so important to her – she needed to uncover the one picture she had of her and her twin – a tangible piece of a happier time with the person who completed her. We have all lost someone we loved, whether a romantic interest or a friend or a member of the family. My challenge was to tap those emotions of love and loss via imagery and scene so that the reader could experience it and therefore empathize with the heroine.
What writing genres and elements do you prefer as a writer (or a reader)?
I read multiple styles of fiction writing and nonfiction. My favorite novel is Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. I also read bestsellers like the Kite Runner and the Harry Potter series. I enjoy writers from Nick Hornby (About A Boy) to Percival Everett (The Water Cure) to classic Anne Rice (Interview with the Vampire) to Tolkein (Lord of the Rings) to Salman Rushdie (The Moor’s Last Sigh). I believe we learn from all writing. We learn what we like and don’t like, then alter our selections based on these discoveries.
I read as a reader and as a writer. I loved About A Boy. Some writers do not enjoy Nick Hornby because much of what occurs is internal dialogue and telling the reader what the character is thinking instead of showing it. For his writing style, I think it works beautifully. In contrast, I thoroughly enjoyed Metal Shredders by Nancy Zafris. Nancy focuses on the top story and then teases out the inner workings of the characters from that top story.
The bottom line for me is, if it works (for me) then I like it.
Are you currently experimenting with anything new in your writing?
When I write novel length prose, I tend to create a very rough outline and then use it as a writing prompt. Right now I’m experimenting with writing via stream of consciousness, which is my standard method to craft short stories. So far the process has been incredibly interesting. I have 113 pages of a very rough draft and I really enjoy the process. My goal is to have a readable rough draft by the 2008 Pennwriters Conference in May.
You’ve attended a variety of workshops, seminars, and conferences for writers. Would you tell us about a few of your favorites?
In all honesty, I have enjoyed each one. I have been priviledged to attend Bread Loaf Writers Conference and workshops by Percival Everett and Danzy Senna. I learned as much from the workshop leaders as my peers (Many of my ‘peers’ are much more accomplished than me, so I don’t feel the term “peer” is accurate. They are absolutely brilliant writers who I am honored to have encountered.) At Bread Loaf much of the experience is simply being in a focused creative environment among like minded people. Michael Collier, the Director of Bread Loaf says in his opening remarks that lifelong friends are made there. I still email, talk, and are MySpace and Facebook friends with fellow attendees. It is a magical experience.
I have also attended Kenyon Review Writers Workshop which is an intensive week of writing, workshopping, writing, workshopping and … oh right … writing. I had the privilege of attending Nancy Zafris and Geeta Kothari’s class. Let me say that Nancy Zafris is such an excellent teacher and guide that she frightened me. And Geeta looked at drafts and asked the right questions which forced me to think and bring the piece to an entirely new level. Our workshop became a family after the first day and for that, I am forever grateful. Again, I believe lifelong friendships were formed with incredibly talented attendees. I am still amazed at the phenomenal writing that was produced on a daily (in reality, nightly) basis.
Another key guide in my writing has been James Rahn, the founder and leader of Rittenhouse Writers Group. I attended the University of Pennsylvania’s Conference for Writers and signed up for James’s advanced workshop. The previous day, I attended another fabulous intensive workshop conducted by Robin Black. When James walked into the workshop he sat down, looked around the room, got up, walked right up to me and said, “You were in Robin Black’s class yesterday right? You’re Lisa?” I squeaked, “Yes.” Then he pointed at me, grinned, and said, “Good!” Later he invited me to join Rittenhouse Writers Group. Another amazing experience with great readers and great writers.
And of course, I frequent the Pennwriters Annual Writers Conference. The first time I attended the conference, I was amazed at the openness and encourangement of everyone. We have writers that represent all genres and all walks of life, yet when we get together it’s about the writing. We focus on encouraging both the established and the new writer. Definitely another family I cherish.
I know you do more than write. Would you like to share some of your performing arts projects?
My last performance was a benefit for Women Against Rape. We presented a staged reading of The Rape Poem. A woman who had been raped wrote a series of poems based on her emotions and their evolution while she healed from the emotional and physical trauma. A playright read the poems and converted them into an experimental one act play. I played the role of Wine (anger). I have a feeling I was cast due to my firey red hair. Sometimes type casting can be positive.
At this point in my life, I audition for roles if my friends recommend them to me or if I’m asked to audition. Performing consumes a lot of time (I’m a bit of a perfectionist) and right now I would rather focus on the writing craft.
What about your day job? (How) has consulting benefited your growth as a writer?
Consulting has been invaluable in my development. Each company has a distinct voice to its writing, so the initial challenge is to understand the company’s culture to best represent that voice.
As I had mentioned earlier, corporate writing has taught me how to step back and assess my own writing. Most corporate editors do not want to see a piece until the writer is 99% sure it is complete. If anything is presented before that time it’s considered amateurish.
Consulting has also taught me to research, research, research – understand what already exists and how to leverage it. Don’t take anything for granted because the more knowledge you have, the better the work.
It has also taught me that work is always better when it is done in collaboration. The trick in fiction is to find readers who provide feedback in a way that is in alignment with your goals as a writer and to find a stellar critiquer who states the feeback in a way that is easily implemented.
What are your goals as a writer and artist?
My ultimate goal is to be a full time fiction writer. The reality is that very few writers are lucky enough to write full time, so I may be in my 50s before this occurs, but I will enjoy the ride. In terms of writing as an artist, I’m finding the evolution of my prose to be really interesting. When I started this journey, I never thought I would write a novel written from the perspective of a woman who is devolving emotionally and mentally to become a celebrity stalker. I can’t wait to see what I come up with next.
As an artist, I want to delve into other forms such as painting and sculpting. In high school, I had an art major and I miss those creative outlets. Now it’s just a matter of finding the time.
Could you tell us about some of your current and upcoming writing projects?
I am currently shopping Jersey Diner, a psychological thriller which engages readers in the twisted realities of heroine Nadia Scott, a waitress at the Athens Diner in Oaklyn, New Jersey. When Nadia’s father commits suicide she rapidly disconnects from rationality and reality.
As I mentioned previously I am in the midst of crafting another manuscript but I’m not comfortable sharing what it is about since it seems to be evolving. I am also sending out multiple short stories, including A Half, to publications. I must admit, I tend to send my writing out in spurts. I need to be more disciplined with submissions.
What are some of your favorite successes as a writer?
Acceptance to Bread Loaf and Kenyon. The day I received my acceptance letters, my mouth flew open, surprised that I had been accepted. When someone reads my prose and says it meant something to them on a personal level or made them think or somehow changed how they viewed the world, I am euphoric.
Some of my favorite successes are also as a reader of prose and poetry. When I read a fellow writer’s piece and am able to provide constructive, positive feedback that encourages the person to continue writing … well, the knowledge that I helped that writer, in the smallest tangential way means the world.
What advice would you give other independent writers?
Read often. Write often. Never give up. Find your stellar critiquer. When someone says you’re good, listen. They are telling you this for a reason.
Lisa, thank you again for joining us at Brainripples – we wish you the best in your future endeavors.
Thank you, Jade. By the way, I need to mention that Jade is one of my stellar critiquers. She provides amazing and insightful feedback that forces me to look at the piece with an entirely different eye. Thank you for that gift.
[Insert Jade’s blush here.]