Kim Edwards grew up in Skaneateles, New York, in the heart of the Finger Lakes region. The oldest of four children, she graduated from Colgate University and the University of Iowa, where she received an MFA in Fiction and an MA in Linguistics. After completing her graduate work, she went with her husband to Asia, where they spent the next five years teaching, first on the rural east coast of Malaysia, then in a small city an hour south of Tokyo, and finally in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. During her time in Asia, Kim began to publish short fiction, and in 1990 her story Sky Juice won the Nelson Algren Award.
Her stories and essays have since appeared in a wide range of periodicals, including Ploughshares, Zoetrope, Anteaus, Story, and The Paris Review. They have won many honours, including a National Magazine Award for Excellence in Fiction and a Pushcart Prize, as well as inclusion in The Best American Short Stories. Kim’s story collection The Secrets of a Fire King was short-listed for the 1998 Pen Hemingway Award. Kim has taught in the MFA programs at Warren Wilson and Washington University, and was associate professor at The University of Kentucky. Her novel, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter (2007) was a number 1 New York Times Best Seller.
A huge thank you for chatting to us today. Your book, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter (made into a film in 2008), is truly touching, and is always flying off our shelves at World of Books, so we know our customers are sure to want to hear what you’ve got to say.
Q: So, let’s start with an easy one! What are your three most annoying habits?
– I suppose that would depend a bit on who you ask! Let’s see: I sing off key, I tend to take on too many projects at once, and I worry too much about silly things.
Q: Your novel, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter (visit the site here), illustrates the common response to mental disabilities, such as Down Syndrome, in the 1960’s (also sadly occurring in later years too). How provoking did you find it researching for this book? And how long did it take?
– It took about three years total to write this book, and I did the research within that time. It was a very organic process; as the characters grew and evolved, I needed to know more, and so I started reading everything I could find, and then meeting with people. I came to feel that a great deal was at stake in portraying Phoebe in a truthful, compassionate, but unsentimental way. The insights I gained from my research filtered gradually into the characters and the story. The more I learned, the more my admiration grew for those parents who fought—and who are still fighting—to make society a welcoming place for their children. Caroline, for instance, is not based on any single real person, but certainly I was inspired by a multitude of real-life stories while I was writing.
Q: How real do your characters become to you?
– The characters—and the stories—become very real. It’s like stepping into an alternate world when I’m writing, and I always carry that world with me until the book is complete. Then, it’s hard to let go. I always have a time of feeling quite bereft once the final editing is done and the book has been sent off for good.
Q: What has been the best/most moving response you have received from a reader?
– I’ve had so many wonderful responses from readers around the world. So many letters have been very moving. However, the most powerful afternoon came during the book tour for The Memory Keeper’s Daughter in Italy (Where the title is Figlia del silenzio, or Daughter of Silence). The Italians do a very formal launch of their books. This one took place in the afternoon, in a beautiful old school. The room was packed, standing room only, to hear the panel discussion about the book. On stage were a judge, an advocate for disabled children, a musician whose daughter has Down syndrome, me and my interpreter, a literary scholar, and the CEO of my publisher, Garzanti, whose son also has Down syndrome. The discussion was incredibly vibrant and passionate and also very moving. It’s an afternoon I will never forget.
Q: Now, World of Books is hugely excited to say that your new book, The Lake of Dreams, was released 29th November this year. The novel tells the story of Lucy Jarrett, who has returned home to New York from Japan, but is still haunted by her father’s unresolved death 10 years before. One night, locked in a window seat of her family home, Lucy discovers a collection of objects that reveal her family’s complex past. The story follows her on her journey to discover the true nature of her heritage that eventually allows her to live more freely than she’d ever have done before. “With surprises at every turn, brimming with vibrant detail, The Lake of Dreams is an arresting saga in which every element emerges as a carefully placed piece of the puzzle that’s sure to enthrall the millions of readers who loved The Memory Keeper’s Daughter”. When speaking about this work you have said that the idea was many years in the making. What was it that kept drawing you back to Lucy and the other characters in the book?
– I was very interested in Lucy, and once I found her voice I wanted to know her better; she wouldn’t let me go. Initially, I imagined Lucy was dealing mostly with the unexpected death of her father a decade earlier, something she needed to resolve before she could move on in her own life. Yet as I wrote, I began to discover this other, parallel story from the deeper past, a scandal from the early 1900s that had radiated through the family in ways no one completely understood. Writing is always a process of discovery for me. I don’t know what is going to happen until I write it. Uncovering the intricate weave of events and seeing Lucy’s
character evolve and change was absolutely fascinating. This book unfolds something like a mystery—the secret at its center is hidden from Lucy as well as from the other characters. It was, initially, hidden from me, too, and it gave me great pleasure to discover how all the characters desires, past and present, fit together into a whole.
Q: Have you been surprised at your success as a writer? What has been the most surreal element you’ve experienced?
– Writing is a labour of love for me, and I did it for many years without any recognition or publications at all; writing is simply one of my greatest pleasures, and I can’t imagine life without it. So the success was a wonderful shock. I don’t think anyone could be prepared for such a whirlwind. I enjoyed every minute of it, but I was also glad to get back to the quiet of writing. The most surreal moment I experienced was when a woman in a bookstore in Memphis turned to me amid the shelves and started telling me about these wonderful books and this wonderful writer she’d just discovered. It was me–she didn’t know who I was and was totally surprised when I introduced myself. We had a good laugh about it!
Q: What would your three pieces of advice be for any aspiring writer?
– Read everything you can, write every day, and don’t worry about publishing anything for many years.
Q: How do you feel your time spent in Asia has influenced you?
– My time in Asia was absolutely formative. I left the rich literary atmosphere of Iowa City for the rural east coast of Malaysia, and then spent six years teaching and traveling in Malaysia, Japan, and Cambodia. There was a wonderful solitude and freedom in being so far away from anything I’d ever known, and this allowed me to take risks, to use all I’d learned in graduate school, and to grow as a writer. I wrote constantly, but I didn’t submit anything I wrote—this was before email, and it was virtually impossible to send stories out. This gave me a tremendous freedom, too. My perspective on the world was forever broadened and changed by these experiences, and when I returned to the US I saw my own country very differently, too.
Q: If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?
– Exactly the job I have. I would be a writer.
Q: And finally the one we ask everyone! Here at World of Books we are dedicated to providing good-quality second-hand books to the public. In a world with an ever-growing digital media base, and increasing environmental concerns, do you believe in the importance of giving each physical book the chance of a new home?
– Yes, I do. Of course I want people to buy my books and the books of all authors when they come out—we work hard and it’s both good and necessary for writers, like all artists, to be able to make a living. Yet when I was living in Malaysia, one of the biggest treats was driving six hours to Singapore to a great used book store there, and filling up the trunk of the car with enough books to sustain us for months. I love books, their beauty and the way they feel in my hands, and never want to be without them. I like thinking of the books I give away journeying into other hands, touching other lives.
Enjoyed this interview? World of Books can’t recommend Kim’s books enough, so visit our store and have a browse! And don’t forget Kim’s newest book, The Lake of Dreams is available in stores now, or you can visit Kim’s site by clicking here.