Today’s featured writer: Kelly Thompson
The featured writing: “Hand Me Down Stories” published at Proximity Magazine.
I met Kelly Thompson last year at AWP in Minneapolis when I visited my friend, Christy Bailey, in her highrise Hilton suite. It was late, and the room was full of people because Christy, being very ill with cancer, had come to AWP as a means of seeing as many friends as possible all in one general location and at the same time. The room was loud, and there were lots of new people to meet, but that didn’t hinder Kelly’s effusive greeting. What struck me upon this meeting was her enthusiasm and vivaciousness. And what has struck me since getting to know her the little bit that I do is her unwavering support for the things and people she loves. Kelly promotes art in all forms, advocating with fervor for new journals such as Witch Craft Magazine and books like The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch. I love Kelly’s spirit of sharing, generosity, and celebration of other artists’ work; it is something I endeavor towards here in The Sunday Spotlight.
I have read a couple of Kelly’s essays published online and was drawn especially to her most recent publication “Hand Me Down Stories” in Proximity Magazine‘s Issue 9: Home.
She summoned spirits in her stories and called up worlds with just a song. Although we moved away from the farm when I was eight, and she’s long passed now, I raise her up just like I did those first long nights of missing her as I lay homesick in my bed. It was Grandma who taught me how to conjure, her voice like a dove, the sudden clap of wings calling me to listen.
Kelly’s essay “Hand Me Down Stories” is part nostalgic homage to her grandmother and the place and people of her ancestry and part inquiry and investigation into family history and the influences and behaviors that get passed down through the generations. This essay is captivating both in the language of the prose and how Kelly captures the rural Kentucky language of her people. As writer Lia Woodall describes, “Kelly conjures up details and scenes where the information was lost or kept away. She has a gift for the ancient voice of storytelling and for painting characters on the page. I didn’t so much read this essay as hear it and feel it, the sensory explosion of it.”
Kelly Thompson is a member of Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, Colorado. She has writing published or forthcoming in Oh Comely, Proximity, The Rumpus, The Manifest-Station, Witch Craft, The Writing Disorder, 49 Writers, and other literary journals.
A few questions for Kelly:
One of the things that draws me as a reader into “Hand Me Down Stories” is the musicality of the language, especially the voice of your grandma and the voices of the men on Willigan’s porch. Were interviews with relatives or Kentucky locals part of your writing process, or did you merely “conjure” the language from memories?
Both. I didn’t formally interview any relatives, but in 2012 I was involved in putting together a family reunion. In the process, I connected online with a “long-lost cousin” a descendant of my great uncle’s line, who lives in the Louisville, Kentucky area. We got into a conversation about old family stories and the one about Riley and the shooting came up. She then told me there was not only more to the story I’d heard as a child, but that there was a court transcript of his appeal to the state of Kentucky, which I was thrilled to access.
Then, at the actual reunion, I talked with one of my cousins who is actually close to my father’s age – he grew up with her – and she filled in some other details, like how alcoholics were considered to be possessed by demons, and stories about the run-ins my great uncle and great grandmother had over his drinking. I also learned for the first time more about Cheerful and Lonny, my grandmother’s half-brothers.
When I first conceived the memoir project I’m currently working on, I knew there would be a thread involving the ancestors and so, when I sat down to write, I immediately heard my grandmother’s voice, telling stories in my head, just like I had since childhood. Then, when I went to write the scenes, like the one with the men on the porch and with the two boys, Cheerful and Lonnie, it was like I was there, witnessing the events take place. I fell into a kind of trance and, as I watched the scenes unfold, I wrote it down exactly as I saw it. So I’d say they were definitely “conjured.”
From your essay, it is evident that your love of storytelling can be attributed to your grandma’s influence. Were there other influences growing up that inspired your love of books/reading/writing?
When I was four years old, I learned to read over my seven-year-old sister’s shoulder. My father was a reader and he took us to the library almost every week. He mostly read westerns at that time, authors like Louis L’amour. Books opened up the world for me from the very beginning. We never had a television in our home, so reading was my only outlet, that or playing outside.
At around six years old, someone gave me a pack of Authors’ Cards and that was it. I loved them. I decided right then and there that I would be an author (which I pronounced “arther”) when I grew up. My life took a circuitous route, so though I’ve been writing off and on since childhood, I only committed myself to learning the craft in the past decade.
To quote a phrase from the essay: you inherited “the talent for playing music by ear.” What instruments do you play? Do you also sing?
I play the pen. I know that sounds weird, but writing is my instrument. When I write, I hear music. I grew up hearing my grandmother’s stories, as well as music, as she, my father and his siblings all played various instruments and sang. Every week, the family gathered at my grandmother’s farmhouse for dinner, followed by a music jam. On my mother’s side of the family, my uncle was a concert violinist and my maternal grandmother sang and played the piano. She was a backup singer for Peggy Lee in Fargo, North Dakota at one time. In the seventies and eighties I worked as a rock & roll disc jockey and played records; I learned some beginning piano as a child, but I definitely can’t sing! But music is in my blood. For me, words sing.
I know that “Hand Me Down Stories” is from your memoir in progress, Oh Darling Girl, which explores a transgenerational legacy of addiction, violence, and shame. Can you tell us more about it?
In my memoir, Oh Darling Girl, I tell the story of how, just as I got sober at age thirty, one of my two barely adolescent daughters descended into addiction. That began the journey of recovery and learning for me, a journey of exploring and claiming the darkness, as my essay says, that found a home first in me, and then my daughter. Over time, I discovered the thread of addiction, and all that comes with it, didn’t originate in us, but wove its way through the generations like a braid. Not only did it come down to my daughter through my bloodline, but was transmitted to her from her father’s as well.
Even though my parents were teetotalers, they each had grown up with alcoholism and, like everyone in their generation, did not understand the nature of addiction, the genetic component, and the transgenerational nature of trauma, which science and the recovery movement have only begun to uncover. In my book, I explore the topic of legacy, our “lot in life,” as my grandma would have called it. We are born into an ongoing story, begun long before our entrance, our “chapter” of it, if you will. The question that fascinates me is one of agency. Can one small life affect the trajectory of the story, of what comes next? How do our choices affect the outcome, if at all, for the next generation and beyond?
Do you write more by logic or intuition, or some combination of the two? Can you summarize your writing process?
What do you mean by logic? I want to ask! So, my answer is–by intuition, mostly. My writing process is very organic and parallels my living process. What I write about is compelled from within and I rarely have any idea what I’m really doing until I’ve done it. That requires faith, which I’m only slowly acquiring, through experience. I’ve learned that the only way the material unfolds for me is to write it. As I write, I discover where it wants to go and this can be a very long process. I often write in fragments, almost never in chronological order, and, at some point, I begin stitching the pieces together, kind of like making a quilt. Lots of “pieces,” then seeing patterns in the pieces, laying them out in various combinations, before finally getting the larger design. But I also sometimes begin with long rambling pages that I think are doing something. Invariably, I set them aside and then, when I come back to them, I pull pieces out, much like cutting squares of fabric for a quilt.
Which authors or books have influenced your work or are some of your favorites?
I have to begin with Rainier Maria Rilke’s poetry and Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings, including his letters to his brother Theo, because they are the ones whose work, early on, validated everything in me that wanted to make art. Reading Rilke or seeing a Van Gogh is like a spiritual experience for me.
Then, since I committed to this writing life, The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch (and everything else she’s written) and The Reenactments by Nick Flynn (and everything he’s written) have had a huge influence. I read voraciously, so it would be hard for me to choose favorites, although I will say Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted, Lidia’s The Small Backs of Children, Roxanne Gay’s An Untamed State, Ben Whitmer’s Cry Father, and the short stories of Flannery O’Connor and Clarice Lispector have been at the top of my list lately. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I read at least three books, if not more, a week.