Monday, December 15, 2014

My First Time: Sarah Kennedy

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Sarah Kennedy.  After completing her M.F.A. in Poetry Writing, she began writing historical poetry.  Seven books of poems later, she turned her scholarly interests in Tudor England to fiction with The Cross and the Crown series.  Sarah earned her Ph.D. in Renaissance poetry and currently teaches and heads the English Department at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia.   Find out more about Sarah and her books at her website.

My Many First Times

The first creative writing class I attended was in college. Susan Neville at Butler University was the professor, and I was scared mute.  She was already a well-known fiction writer—that was enough to intimidate me!—and I was sure that I was a poet.  Dialogue?  Forget it!  I was all about image and compression.  (I was taking a course in Modernism, too, and that didn’t help.)

Our first assignment was to write a scene, and I thought I could handle that.  If I remember rightly, the homework called for a couple of pages of description.  Well, description...that was my strength.  Or so I thought.  I think I described a dilapidated house, but it was so overwritten and so sappy with personification that I was mortified when I got it back.  Tender-ego me.  I asked if I could write poetry, and Susan, being the terrific person that she is, said yes.

I did still try now and then to write prose, but my stories always sounded forced, unnatural.  And dialogue continued to haunt me.  All that talk.  Who needed it?

Apparently, at some point in my writing life, I did.  I graduated and went on to become a teacher myself.  I also continued to write poems.  And after three published books, something happened.  The first turn occurred during a research trip to Aberystwyth, Wales, where the National Library had several old recipe manuscripts.  I was teaching eighteenth-century literature and wanted to investigate what women actually wrote about.  They wrote recipes, to be sure.  But they also wrote about their lives: their children, their friends, their love affairs and marriages, their favorite songs and books, and even their gambling debts.  My understanding of the eighteenth century increased...but I started to hear their voices in my head.  Talking to me.  To each other.  To people I didn’t know.

After seven books of poetry, I turned to prose.  I had a character knocking at my imagination—a young nun at the start of the Reformation in England, who is about to be evicted from her convent.  She’s intelligent, and she’s educated, and she doesn’t know what’s going to happen to her.  She also doesn’t know who her parents are.  That nun called herself Catherine Havens, and she is the main character in my first novel, The Altarpiece.  Apparently her story wasn’t done, though, because I have just published Book Two, City of Ladies; Book Three, The King’s Sisters is on its way in August 2015.

The convents are now closed, and Catherine has to discover who she is and what she can still believe in a country that seems to have thrown out God with the Roman church.  She has some firsts of her own to struggle with: a first marriage and a first child.  A first loyalty—to God—that often puts her in contention with her husband—and her king.

Book Four is underway (tentative title: Queen of Blood), and it should seem that there are no firsts left for me in writing novels, especially about Tudor England.  But, in fact, I find just the opposite is true.  Every blank screen, every empty page, becomes an invitation to try something new, to travel into strange places.  And so I begin again on another venture into fiction, and no matter how well I get to know them, I try to meet my characters all over, as though for the first time.