TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe.
Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?
A coming-of-age book for everyone who came of age anywhere but home,
Kristine Langley Mahler’s debut essay collection, Curing Season, pries apart
the cracks of inclusion to experiment with the nature of belonging, memory, and
place. After four years of adolescence in Pitt County, North Carolina, Mahler
is still buffeted by the cultural differences between her pioneer-like
upbringing in Oregon and the settled Southern traditions into which she could
not assimilate. That yearning remains
buried like a splinter as Mahler carefully tweezes out the artifacts of
her adolescence, placing them beside the history of eastern North Carolina to
study the narratives that have defined them both, trying to make room for
outsiders in a place so old, million-year-old Megalodon shark teeth erupt from
the creek beds every spring.
Which essay did you most enjoy writing? Why? And, which
essay gave you the most trouble, and why?
I really appreciate the opportunity to reflect upon which
essay I most enjoyed writing—as a memoirist, I think it’s a given that
memoirists all know we’re spelunking through the uncomfortable and often
hard-to-face memories when we write, and I think that it can be easy to lose
sight of the joy produced during that writing—not just the joy of re-surviving
the moments, but the joy of playing with the text. Playing with the memories.
Being delighted by the little details we almost forgot. At least it was that
way for me as I wrote “Club Pines,” an essay framed into the houses of the
girls from my old neighborhood. There were so many of them! I had to pull up a
Google Maps image of my neighborhood and proceed down each street, reminding
myself who had lived where, and I was startled to realize how many houses I
actually had been inside. Once I’d identified them all, I metaphorically
sat inside the girls’ old houses and free-wrote about what came to mind—what I
still remembered after all these years (and it’s been about 25 years!). The
details that trickled out were the emblems of how I had chosen to remember each
girl. I actually laughed out loud when remembering certain details, wryly rolled
my eyes at others, and yes—because it was inevitable—averted my eyes at the
uncomfortable ones. But those emblems—those emblematic moments I could
immediately recall upon simply seeing the fronts of their Google-Imaged
houses—all taught me how I had viewed belonging and friendship, and recording
the specificities of those girls and their houses and their friendships filled
me with so much joy. It was always the details I collected like an adolescent
magpie which had meant so much when I was a girl; it was always those details
that satisfied my internal questions about whether I knew enough to belong.
Which essay gave me the most trouble? Let’s just say “A Pit
Is Removed, A Hollow Remains” because as I was writing it, I kept thinking, “Am
I allowed to do this? Can I really collage and modify this book of family
histories? Are the citizens of Pitt County going to come for me?” Well, one way
or another, I did it anyway!
Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s
road to publication.
I thought Curing Season was a different book! I had written
an essay collection, originally titled Pull Me Through the Doorway,
which was all about home and belonging. But I spent the summer of 2020 taking
the old book apart and bringing together a large subcurrent: the essays about
my adolescence in Pitt County, North Carolina. That fall, I tried pitching
agents to no avail—kind of funny now, since this book is so clearly not an
agent-style book. Once those pitches all failed, I steeled my courage and sent
a query for Curing Season to the In Place imprint at West Virginia
University Press—an imprint I had long-since held on my shelf as a dream press
because their focus on books about place was EXACTLY my jam. In December 2020,
WVU let me know they wanted to send my book out to be peer reviewed and would
make a decision on whether they wanted to offer based on the feedback. I held
my breath and in late February 2021, WVU Press shared the extraordinarily kind
(and insightful!) peer reviews and made me an offer! Honestly, the way the reviewers
saw Curing Season—the way they wrote about it, the way they understood
it—made the decision extremely easy. If WVU Press could read and want my book
after knowing how it was seen and understood by others, I knew they would know
how to support it. I’m still on cloud 9!
What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?
Save it. Save all of it. Save the scraps you edit out
because they don’t belong in a piece and use them as jumping-off points later,
even if it’s just to keep yourself writing—I often reuse them as prompts to go
My favorite writing advice is “write until something
surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?
I was surprised by how many formal structures I ended up
using in the essays within Curing Season. Subtitles and constrained
forms, boxes and boxes scaffolding essays. I was surprised to discover that so
many of these essays about Pitt County and my adolescence seemed to have REQUIRED
me to use alternate forms to approach the subject matter. I wrote most of the
essays in this book over a period of roughly five years (if I discount “Not
Something That’s Gone,” which I worked on for twenty years) and didn’t know
they were building toward something; to see the essays together, written into
all these various constraints, revealed something to me that I hadn’t seen
before: how much I both wanted to create structure out of that time and
how much I felt constrained by the cultural structures I didn’t build!
How did you find the title of your book?
The title of Curing Season comes from a particular process
for curing tobacco—eastern North Carolina is famous for growing tobacco, but
also for its flue-curing process, which happens after the tobacco has been cut.
The tobacco is hung in sheaves to dry, which are then tied to poles which are
laid across the eaves of curing barns. A low fire is stoked and its heat is fed
into the barn. It only takes about a week, nowadays, to complete the curing
process of turning picked-tobacco into cigarette-ready tobacco. Those curing
barns—or “curing shacks,” as I call them in the book, are some of my most vivid
memories from driving around rural Pitt County with my family on Sundays after
church. In my mind’s eye, almost none of the curing barns were still whole or
being used. They were eaten alive by vines, by trees, by time, boards falling
off and roofs caving in. The curing process and the curing shacks became
emblems for me of what it took to belong to Pitt County—the shacks might be
broken, they might be in disrepair, but the curing season itself spoke to the
knowledge that something grown could be turned into something desirable. If it
could stand the heat. If it could be cured. The metaphor wrote itself.
Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any
food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)
Lord, y’all can look for food in this book but I’ve got
nothing other than Moon Pies and sweet tea to offer you. 4 bags of Luzianne
steeping in 32oz of hot water for 3.5 minutes; stir in 1/3 C of sugar and ¼ C
of lemon juice. But I prefer the old Nestea powder.
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