Memoirist Beth Kephart opens up about her obsession with birds, her definition of “truth,” and her new short memoir Nest. Flight. Sky.
What prompted you to write Nest. Flight. Sky.?
I teach memoir at Penn, I’ve written about its glories, challenges, and consequences in Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, I blog daily about life (Beth Kephart Books), and once, a lifetime ago, I wrote five memoirs. But it has been many years and many books since I’d dared to write the extended truth. By the time Shebooks emerged, I was desperate to speak. My mother had passed away. I had become obsessed with birds and nests, but I did not understand why. I believe that it’s only in writing toward questions that we find at least some of the answers. I wrote Nest. Flight. Sky. to find some answers.
Birds and nests have been a recurrent theme in your work. What is the origin of this?
Nest. Flight. Sky: On love and loss, one wing at a time is, indeed, about recurrent images. It’s about those birds, those wings, those nests that have entered into all the fiction I have written—one book after another, ever since my mother died. It all began with winter finches tapping on my windowpane in the months after her passing. It became a quest for hawks, for hummingbirds, for flight.
When did you first decide you were a writer?
Do we ever decide that we are writers? Or do we just decide that we must write, that we will not be able to breathe if we do not? I’m not sure, even all these books in, that I am a writer. I think readers are in charge of that decision. I only know that, since I was nine, words and their melodies gave me a sense of being nearly whole.
How do you define “truth” in memoir?
Truth is a quest—not a juried conclusion, not a slate of “facts,” not a report, not a prettied-up-look-at-me guessing game. Truth changes with time; it changes photograph to photograph. It is never possible to be precisely, scientifically, indisputably accurate, but it is essential to bring an honest heart to the framing of questions and the searching for answers. Empathy—for one’s own self and for others—is essential to the quest.
Do you currently have a job other than writing?
Most writers I know have job multiples. Me? I run a boutique marketing communications firm (Fusion Communications), producing annual reports, commemorative books, and employee publications for companies in the pharma, real estate, and insurance industries. I also teach creative nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania, review adult novels for the Chicago Tribune, write about the intersection of memory and place for the Philadelphia Inquirer, write about publishing trends for a variety of publications, and do whatever else that is required to live a full life and write the kinds of books (never the best sellers, or at least not yet) that I want to write.
What’s an odd fact about you that not many people know?
I do things I’m bad at, just to keep myself alert and alive to new vocabularies and challenges. Two cases in point: I take ballroom dancing lessons. I muck around in a pottery studio.
What is your favorite word right now?
Do you have an e-reader? What book are you reading on it now?
I do have an e-reader. I have a house full of books and an e-reader. I love to read the New York Times on my pretty little e-reader. But I also read books I just can’t wait to get in hand. Right now, that book is Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi. (Love.) I’ve also read a number of Shebooks. They are excellent. I know you’ll agree.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I am releasing, on April 1, Going Over (Chronicle Books), a Berlin 1983 young adult novel (but truly, it is a crossover young adult novel) that takes place on both sides of the Wall. In the fall, a book I published many years ago—Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River—is being released by Temple University Press as a paperback (yay!). Flow tells the story of the river in her own words, which is to say, it is the story of a woman stuck in perpetual middle age. Next year, Chronicle Books will release a new novel that takes place in Florence, Italy. I’m also at work on a book about my city, Philadelphia, and I’ve just begun another novel for Chronicle Books. I have a novel for adults in mind. I just haven’t found the time to work on it.
Beth Kephart is author of the Shebook, Nest. Flight. Sky.