photo credit: Eileen Chow
Our editor-in-chief Lauren Bender recently had this exchange with Emily Alice Katz, our Issue #30 featured fiction author. Here’s what she had to say about her writing process, the joy of being part of a writing community, and the inspiration behind her short story “The Italian Dance.”
What inspired you to write this piece?
Evie, the protagonist of “The Italian Dance,” was a secondary character in a novel that I was working on several years ago. I conceived of a sequel focused on Evie, who, as the original novel ended, was leaving New York City for Denver—for her health—with her older sister. Writing about Evie’s life in a Denver sanatorium (based on the real Jewish Consumptives’ Relief Society), I pictured her in a drama workshop led by a young woman from the local university, who initially was also going to be a major character in the Denver novel. At some point, I realized that if I wanted to know Evie better, it had to be in the setting of the theatrical group within the sanatorium—I had a gut sense that this particular scenario would reveal to me who she was, in terms of her yearnings, her sense of herself as an artist, how she grappled with her illness. The short story became the laboratory in which to work through these questions of character.
Tell us about your writing process. Do you have a specific routine, time, or place where you write? What is revision like for you?
Mornings—after my kids are off to school—are for writing. That’s the priority, during a time that’s all my own. I either write at home or at a university library nearby. I generally set a word-count goal for the day and the week, just to keep things flowing, and any time that’s left over is for research and reading. But I also try to fight my default sense that the tally of words or pages is what truly counts. I have to constantly re-convince myself that reading and “just” thinking are also part of the work of writing. I tend to want to quantify output; it’s a chief means of managing anxiety, for me. But reading—not just for research, but also to find literary models, and to open myself up to other perspectives—is so important, and I wish I had time to do even more of it.
As for revising: once I’ve got a solid draft of something, I solicit feedback from writer friends. (I love this collaborative aspect of writing—it reminds me what I enjoyed most about acting in plays and making music.) After some time has passed, I come back to the work, re-read, and revise. And repeat. And repeat. I’m still never sure when something is really, really finished—I could tweak forever. I think that’s probably true of all writers.
You’re a history teacher at the University of California, Irvine, and your short story is historical fiction. Could you talk some about your love of history and when and how that began?
I’m no longer in academia, but I have a PhD in modern Jewish studies; I did teach Jewish history for several years at UC-Irvine, and I published a book based on my dissertation. I started grad school in my early twenties out of genuine love of and curiosity about Jewish history and literature and art, but also because I think I felt on some deep level that I didn’t yet have the authority or experience to be an artist, whatever that meant to me at the time. I intuited that I didn’t have the stamina or thick skin to tough it out in the worlds of indie theater and songwriting in New York, and I hadn’t yet felt the itch (as a grown-up, that is) to write fiction. I knew that I needed to incubate for a while, to master a body of knowledge. I did always enjoy conducting historical research, but I like it much more now that I’m using it to craft fiction. It’s been liberating to cross over from academic history to fiction writing—but I can’t imagine having come here by any other route.
How does your teaching influence your writing and vice versa?
I’m not teaching any more, since moving to Durham—the truth is that teaching was so draining, in my experience, that it took up most of my creative energy!
What other writers (or artists, thinkers, historical figures) inspire you? Are you reading anything right now that you’d like to recommend?
I’ve been reading a lot of poetry lately, much to my surprise. I listen to the podcast Between the Covers regularly; the show has introduced me to a bunch of contemporary poets and has assuaged my fear that contemporary poetry is an impenetrable fortress. I came to Morgan Parker, Mary Ruefle, Gregory Pardlo, and others in this way. Now when I go to bookstores I hit the poetry section first, pick up a random book, and just see where it takes me.
I recently read Kathleen Collins’s posthumous short story collection Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? and I’ve been recommending it to writer friends as an exemplar of voice and compression, among other things. I’ve been going back to classic short story writers like Katherine Anne Porter and Grace Paley. I have a long list of women writers that I’m slowly working my way through. I’m also partial to artist and author biographies. Between Friends, the collected letters of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, got me through those first few months of the Trump presidency.
What is it about Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and the character of Nora that speak uniquely to Evie’s circumstances?
I can’t remember how I first hit upon A Doll’s House as the play the group would be tackling. I knew, starting out, that Ibsen had been translated into Yiddish, that there was an audience for it, and that the sanatorium on which Evie’s is based took the cultural aspirations of its residents very seriously. I also have a treasured photograph of my own great-grandmother dressed up as Nora Helmer; she apparently acted in an amateur, German-language production of A Doll’s House in New York in her youth. I read Ibsen in school, and I saw an excellent production of A Doll’s House at St. Ann’s Warehouse, in New York, years ago. So I guess the play has always been kicking around in the back of my mind. And then, of course, Evie herself makes the connection between Nora’s predicament and her own—constricted and surveilled as both women are by others who claim to know what’s best for them—even if Evie ultimately finds Nora an unsympathetic character.
Evie doesn’t consider Nora a likable character, because Nora doesn’t appreciate what she has. What are your thoughts on whether Evie is a likable character?
I think what Evie perceives is what we might now call Nora’s privilege. Within the world of the play, Nora Helmer is constrained and condemned by dint of being a woman in a patriarchal society; her bourgeois status does not shield her from this—indeed, it strips her of power in many ways. But from the perspective of a young woman who is poor and chronically (and probably terminally) ill—not to mention an immigrant—Nora’s dilemma seems hollow, manufactured. Yet part of what we’re seeing, with Evie, is the immaturity and arrogance of youth. She’s in late adolescence; she knows only her own experience of the world. And she’s angry about the limited choices granted to her.
What I love most about your story is Evie’s internal conflict when it comes to preserving her strength vs. craving movement and freedom. There is a lot of focus on the strength and fragility of the body, even in small details throughout, like the description of mountains (an inherently strong natural landscape) as a “broken body… face up on the plains.” Evie’s fever returns at the end, yet that is the moment she finally chooses to leave the sanatorium to dance. What do you hope this story teaches readers about self-care vs. taking risks? Or is pushing yourself to take risks part of self-care at times?
I’ve spent the last few years thinking a lot about how illness shapes the narrative of one’s existence, in addition to determining the most mundane details of day-to-day life. And how the institutions—however humane and well-intentioned and necessary—in which and through which modern medicine heals bodies are also paternalistic, obfuscating, and hypocritical.
So while Evie knows that she’s lucky to have landed where she is, she bridles at the strictures placed upon her and the unfairness of it all. She senses the greater weight of this institutionalization on her as a young person and as a young woman. And in discovering a yearning to act, to perform, Evie’s existential dilemma—preserve health, or feed the soul—becomes even more painful. I think Evie grasps early on that she won’t be able to play the part of the docile patient over the long haul, even at the cost of her health. She’s coming to know herself. So, in that sense, risk is indeed self-care for Evie. I don’t think that’s necessarily true for everyone.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a novel set in the contemporary period—as is most fiction that I’m writing now—and it has turned out to entail, in part, my imagining the whole arc of one character’s childhood. It’s a challenge for me to roll with a bigger and messier project than I’m used to, to really let the writing take me where it wants to go. It’s fun and uncomfortable at the same time—an ideal combination. I’ve got a novella and short stories and short-shorts in various stages of completion and revision. My first flash fiction publication will appear in Sky Island Journal in the spring; I’m excited about that.
Since we’ve grown out of a writers’ workshop, we like to ask: could you share a best—or worst—workshop experience?
I’m still pretty new to fiction writing, and I don’t yet have a ton of workshopping under my belt. My experiences so far in formal workshops have been good, especially as a first step in re-imagining myself as a writer of fiction. But the more informal feedback of writer friends over the past several years has probably been most important to my development as a writer thus far. And, in fact, I’ve made a few of these friends through workshops—that possibility alone makes a workshop worthwhile, I think.