Nancy King, interviewed by Madi Preda from Authors PR
Nancy King is the author of seven books of nonfiction, four novels, plays, and essays, and is currently a consultant focusing on developing innovative literacy and drama programs in schools, teaching writing, and working with older women to find ways to re-invent their lives. One of her novels, The Stones Speak, was selected as a finalist in the New Mexico Books Award – 2009 and was optioned for a film.
Hello Nancy and thank you for taking time to answer my questions. Where does your passion for stories, questions about identity, and the importance of self-discovery come from? I ask because it seems that all that your books explore these themes.
Stories saved my life. When I was a child, growing up in a difficult family, I would hide in a safe place, close my eyes, imagine a theatre in my head, and tell myself a story about a heroic girl with all the qualities I didn’t think I had. Afterward I always felt better. As an adult, dealing with a catastrophic illness and challenging life situations, telling myself stories gave me the energy to face and confront what I needed to do. In my novels, as well as in life, the stories we are told about ourselves, the stories we tell ourselves, as well as the stories we tell others, play a large part in the development of who we are.
Self-discovery and identity are intertwined. I grew up, metaphorically speaking, in a “fun house mirror.” My sense of self grew out of, and was dependent upon what others told me about myself. Much of what they said turned out to be distorted, damaging, and not true. It took a lot of years before I began to realize that the stories told about me were lies, told to cover up what really happened, to protect those who had hurt me. Even after I began to suss out enough of the truth to understand why I had made so many bad choices, changing my view of myself was complicated and problematic. So much of how I had lived my life was based on what I had been told and, as a result, what I experienced. Although these old voices still live inside me they no longer have the power they once did and I am freer to live as I choose.
You have written so many books that there is not enough room to talk about all of them. We should have an interview for each of them sometime. Please tell us now about your latest one, Changing Spaces and the main character, Laura Feldman. What was inspired you to write this story?
A few years ago I was invited to a Christmas party where I admired the hostess’s unusual crèche. In response she shrugged and said, “I made it before I lost my life.” I didn’t know her well enough to ask the myriad questions that came to mind, but it turned out her husband of 40 years had come home one night, told her he was in love with another woman and wanted a divorce. This was bad enough, but she was a corporate wife and he asked her to resign from all the boards she was now on so his new wife could be on them. Within the next three weeks I heard stories from two women whose husbands had left them for younger women, as well as reading an article in the New York Times by a woman who had once extolled the joys of being a stay-at-home wife and mother, but was now writing about being dumped by her husband who wanted to marry a younger woman.
I couldn’t get the words, “That was before I lost my life,” out of my mind. I kept wondering what it might be like to suddenly lose the only life you had known for 40 years. How does one make a new life after 60? As a result, I created the character of Laura and the novel Changing Spaces was born.
Why write about divorce and why have Laura flee to Santa Fe? You describe Santa Fe as a place where people seem to have an unusual sense of communication, where it is possible to create one’s own way of living and being. Is Santa Fe a special place?
Divorce ends life as we know it even if a couple has children. I’ve been divorced twice and each time I had to make fundamental choices about who I was and who I wanted to be. I was forced to decide how I wanted to live now that the life I had known was finished. Although my situations differed from Laura’s, the question of what one does after divorce intrigued me. I situated the novel in Santa Fe because I find it to be an extraordinary place. Perhaps it’s the confluence of cultures, the mountains, the geographical isolation . . . I don’t really know. I came to Santa Fe without planning or intention and discovered the power of being known without anyone knowing my history. No one reminded me about something I’d said or done years ago. My soul and spirit flew free. I could be who I was instead of the person people thought I was or needed me to be.
Why did you choose a woman as your main character? Do you think that it is easier for men to recover after divorce or is it just as painful for them as for women?
I think it’s impossible to generalize. People without financial means tend to have fewer choices and none of them might be good. The one who leaves often has an easier time than the one who is left. I chose a woman as my main character because many women in my generation were told that our job was to take care of our husbands, to put them first. I was “lucky” in a way because no man ever supported me financially or emotionally. I’ve always had to work, and for years I was a single mother with no child support. I needed to earn money but I chose to focus on creating a career for myself rather than simply looking for a job, which was much easier to do then than it is now because then there were fewer gatekeepers and bean counters. Experience mattered as much as educational degrees. In fact, I got my PhD ten years after I’d been promoted to full professor. That’s unlikely to happen these days.
How many ‘Laura Feldmans’ do you know in real life? How easy is it for people to move on and make a new life after a life changing event?
Laura Feldman, like many women of her age, was taught to put her husband’s happiness above and before her own. When the marriage ended, a vacuum was created, requiring her to make new choices. I don’t think it is ever easy to move on, to make a truly new life. There are people who remarry, thinking they’ve chosen someone different, only to realize the new spouse is a version of their previous one. Actually changing one’s life is challenging and yet, in my experience, having the wherewithal to face unpleasant truths, bewildering feelings, puzzling memories, and difficult situations, has made it possible for me to say, “This is the best time of my life.”
What themes are important to you to share with your readers in Changing Spaces?
I write from what I describe as a theatre in my head. The characters I create take on lives of their own, and although they are crafted by me, through my experience, they aren’t me. Since I think no one can tell anyone else what a story means without killing the story, I prefer not to tell readers what themes are important to me because I think what really matters is what readers think and feel, the themes that are significant to them.
I think human potential is endless and I want to ask you something. How far should we dream and how high should we set our goals in life in order not to be disillusioned?
Dreams and goals are about possibility, about knowing where your interest and passion lie. When I was in my twenties I wanted to teach using all the arts and was constantly told this was impossible, that I had to focus on one and become expert in that area, something I was unable to make myself do. Then, many years later, when I found a way to teach world literature in the University of Delaware Honors Program, I incorporated art, music, drama, movement, and stories into my teaching, thus fulfilling the dream I’d had when I was so much younger. Although I never gave up, I also never thought I’d find a way to do this given the rigid structure of university departments. And yet, without conscious action, this desire influenced every choice I made, leading to the moment when I had the opportunity to teach in ways that were important to my students and me.
Please, can you tell me more about your literacy programs?
To me, literacy is about being able to read, write, and speak with authenticity, fluency, and confidence. Given that I often work with people who have difficulty reading, writing and speaking, I use an multi-faceted approach that builds upon the skills people already have—telling stories. I recently worked with 8th grade middle-school students, helping them to write a memoir of an important event in their lives. Almost all of them had failed standardized literacy tests, most students had never written more than a paragraph, and for many, English was their second language.
I usually begin teaching by telling a traditional story, which acts as a container for the session to follow. Then, as a way of connecting verbal and nonverbal knowing, students paint and/or sculpt an image from an abstract prompt (paint an image of courage or sculpt an image of possibility) in less than a minute. More time results in increased anguish. After the imagemaking, participants write words that come to mind, thus anchoring the image in their consciousness.
What follows, depends upon the focus of the group. In the case of the 8th graders, the imagemaking helped to evoke important aspects of their stories and eased their anxiety about writing. Much to their surprise, but not mine, they wrote powerful and moving memoirs which they then shared with their classmates and visitors who came to a celebration of the book that had been made from their stories.
An exploration of my work with stories, both in the US and abroad, can be found in Dancing With Wonder: Self-Discovery Through Stories. You can read an excerpt of it on my website: www.nancykingstories.com
And finally, what are you working on right now? Can you tell us a few words about your work in progress?
I’m working on a novel, currently titled, Opening Gates. It’s based on experiences I had years ago, when I was nineteen, hired to be a summer recreational therapist in charge of a building of women in a large mental hospital. The young protagonist, Rennie, is thrust into a world where missteps have terrifying consequences. As she learns to negotiate the rollercoaster world of the hospital, she develops the courage to act in ways she could never have imagined before taking the job.
Thank you for being with us. I hope that all the visitors on my blog will enjoy your interview and I hope to have you back with us soon. It was a pleasure to talk with you today and judging by the responses to the post about your books I think my readers are curios to hear author Nancy King’s thoughts.
I wish you good luck and many readers.
You can read more about Nancy King’s book, Changing Spaces here