A Short Inquiry

in the kitchen
© Yiftach Paltrowitz, 2010

(Adapted from: “An Interview with KJ Hannah Greenberg.” Indie Firsts! The Magazine for Independent Readers. Kindle Ed. Positive Publishing Perspectives. Nov. 28, 2011.)

* You write some unusual, but fabulous fiction that reveals such an imaginative and creative person behind the words. Was writing always organic for you? Who or what inspires you?

I’m somewhat eclectic. I’ve been: an oboe player, a chemistry and calculus teacher, a weekend weight lifter, a National Endowment for the Humanities Scholar (in the field of classics), a cooking instructor, a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, a public relations intern, a community-based agriculture activist, a proponent of the Sudbury School model of education, an adherent to a very ancient religion, a flower arranger, a rhetoric professor, a companion to multiple cats, an herbalist, a teacher of feminist sociology, a cyclist, a swimmer, and a fan of berry-flavored yoghurt drinks. Despite my eagerness to try out many things, I’ve never been one to: throw pottery on a wheel, knead bread, enjoy teaching trigonometry, learn about machines’ guts, be impressed by titles, degrees, awards, or wealth, forget the power of laughter, or fail to embrace my children’s Uromastyx lizard. Likewise, I refuse to inflate students’ grades and I never fostered an affection for chocolate-chip ice cream.

As a kid, I read Asimov, Heinlein, and Vonnegut. I also read Camus, Hesse, and Sarte. In addition, I read about dog breeds, the history of costumes, cutting edge surgical procedures, and ecology. In third grade, most specifically, I fell in love with word play. By the time I was fifteen, two newspapers paid me to contribute my views on a weekly basis. As an eighteen-year-old college sophomore, I merited to have a musical, for which I wrote the book and lyrics, staged. During college, I moved from majoring in linguistics, to majoring in biochemistry, to majoring in science writing. Shortly thereafter, I ran away to the scholarly world, where I invested my energies in academic forums. I was a regular contributor to national conferences and spoke at international ones. What’s more, I taught Communication Theory, Semantics, Social Values and Popular Culture, The Rhetoric of Identity and close to three dozen other courses. As a professor, I jumped among levels of meaning and mixed up all manner of examples and of explanations. Sadly, that which enraptured me frightened my students.

Fortunately, years later, parenting returned me to the enormity and value of human commonplaces. Since my children, who were neither completely feral nor entirely broken of spirit, needed the boost that fiction could lend them, I wrote narratives. My academic prose had already morphed from treaties on Isocrates and on comparative hierarchies of ethics to contemporary media’s presentation of pregnancy loss. To leave behind footnotes and research libraries and to strike, in its place, into provinces where heroes and villains ranked supreme was a natural next step. So, my texts became concerned with furry and scaly protagonists. Bedtime, lunchtime, any time really, became an occasion for my unbound sagas. My sons and daughters demanded action, believability, and moral sensibility in their entertainments. The ballads, which I wrote for them, featured little sex, but contained much mauling and death; the fantasy genre tends to be violent.

To wit, pink ponies, anthropomorphized mushrooms, berry bushes, jays, mice, and leopards populated my early fabrications. Such works suited my audience during those periods of their childhoods when they faced anxieties about body image, bullies, and gatekeepers who lacked compassion (elementary school teachers can be horrific in their insistence on prescribed behaviors.) For my offspring, I intertwined sentient slugs, reverberating piranhas, and sloths that glowed in florescent light, with troll princesses, magical toddlers, and nobles suffering from absentmindedness. At that juncture, when in the classroom, I correspondingly granted permission to my students, whether they were enrolled in grade school or in graduate school, to seek out madcap combinations. My words looked comparable to play, and tasted fun, but were fueled by much mindfulness.

* You didn’t try to publish anything for a long time. What kept you from submitting your work, and what made you finally decide to publish it?

I never stopped authoring. I temporarily got distracted from rewriting, and, hence, had nothing that I deemed worthy to send to publishers. During the decades that I devoted to raising my children, I’d record a first draft of a novel, sketch out a limited quantity of three act plays, make notes about characters I wanted to perform in short fiction, or poke at a collection of poetry, but was so otherwise occupied with transforming a suburban lawn into a series of wildflower gardens, studying belly dancing, learning basket weaving, and trying, but failing, to bake cakes, that for a span, I did not satisfactorily finish those projects. I did, however, generate another newspaper column and teach writing, public speaking, sociology, and human communications.

More specifically, I’ve long held that one ought never to submit junk. The limited number of times when I elected to produce low fibre, non-nutritious, brain food, I did so with intentionally and I labeled such balderdash with ample warnings. As a result, for twenty years, I wrote a lot, but tendered little.

Time passed. My family moved from North America to a land where scholars lacking proficiency in the local tongue are in small demand. I morphed again, returning to hewing assemblages of words. Toward that end, I shared yarns at women’s gatherings, wrote a blog for an international site, taught narrative craft to ex-patriots, and began to accept new invitations to judge and to critique others’ output. Eventually, I marshalled snippets of my formerly incomplete handiworks and sent those puppies to new homes. The subsequent, positive response I received buoyed me, a midlife mom, to attempt to conjure new pieces and to try to refine the items that were still in my reserve.

* Your collection of work is extensive. It always seems that you have something, or, more often, multiple new things to share. What is your writing process like?

My mother claims that as a toddler, I insisted on regularly being lowered into my playpen to converse with make-believe friends. I suppose it could be said that whereas I have gotten older, I have not aged. To date, I remain this side of crazy and that side of incorrigible. Much to my logical positivist husband’s chagrin, I usually have anywhere from five to twenty windows concurrently opened on my desktop. In the same way, I paint multiple canvases simultaneously, develop three or four samples of hand-built ceramics at a time, and use my family’s entire stovetop’s worth of burners when cooking. Synergy fuels me. I might appear staid, even frumpy, but those verities are mere externalities. More exactly, I delight in moving ideas that “suit” poetry into essays and take pleasure in welcoming personages “appropriate” for novels into short stories.

* You’ve written a lot about your children. Does parenthood affect what you find yourself writing?

Used wisely, parenting is more than an opportunity to torture, I mean to nurture, a new generation or to heal the rough spots of one’s own earlier life. Parenting can equally free one from the encumberments of society.

My kids were fond of linking clover crowns, painting pictures directly onto our walls, and taking night-time slug walks. Yet, I was the family member, who went crazy over computer-assisted physics games, who wanted all the visitors to our home to reinterpret eggplant as dessert, and who had to be pulled back from stroking every cute kitten, every domesticated alpaca, or every chinchilla coat that we encountered. Whereas my sons and daughters grew up in an environment that both intentionally and inadvertently encouraged them to engage in critical and creative thinking, it was Yours Truly who was most profoundly impacted by our family’s practice of non-judgment. Consequently, today, there’s nothing surreptitious about my fictions containing face-eating spiny mammals, purple and green refrigerator colonists, or orphaned chimeras angered by humanity’s overall lack of dry wit.

At the same time as those teens and twenties, who were born to our manor, tried to figure out how to hide me when their friends visited, I revelled in the succulence of raising them. Shamelessly, I hung hand-dried flowers over the tops of our living room cabinets and flapped my arms when sitting in the passenger seat of our car.

* You have done just about everything: write, edit, teach, critique, blog, and the list goes on. Is there anything that you like (either guiltily or without apology) above the others?

The best is in the here and now as it always was, and as it always will be. It may seem trite to talk about the “present” as being our lives’ great “gift,” but excellence is the current moment. Beyond such gratitude, and with no hesitation, I daily shout, aloud, that being a wife, a mom, and a grandmom are the most exquisite facets of my life. Although the varmints I birthed had the audacity to grow up and to seek their own escapades, they left behind irresistable playthings such as an invisible Komodo dragon and such as their father. It’s of small wonder that I continue to celebrate life by jotting down bits and bobs about my family.

* Do you have any advice for aspiring writers or people who are trying to get their work noticed?

There are four ingredients to writing: read, read, read, write, write, write, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, and risk soliciting feedback from people whose efforts you esteem. Reading increases vocabulary, forms new synaptic connections, i.e., expands mental capacity, and, in other respects, teaches the innate qualities of discourse. Albeit akin to playing basketball or to making soufflés, word work is improved with practice. Beyond those ideas, it’s vital to solicit feedback so as to uncover blind spots. Yet, rewriting remains the essence of writing. Revision is so invaluable that even after a manuscript has been published, it remains incomplete. Consider the chronicle of any freestanding narrative that has gotten reprinted, or that has gotten repurposed as part of an anthology; almost always, it’s been reworked.