By Olivia Kate Cerrone
Last July, I had the enormous privilege of reading my fiction at the Rabbit Tales Reading and Performance Series in Brooklyn, NY. There I met the event’s curator, Kate Hill Cantrill, an accomplished author who deeply values fostering community among working artists. Rabbit Tales is unique in its approach, combining literary readings with music, dance, comedy, play readings, and more. Bringing together both emerging and established artists alike, it inspires a friendly, collaborative atmosphere, one not often found in the ultra competitive arts scene of NYC.
Kate’s writing has appeared in many literary publications, including Story Quarterly, Salt Hill, The Believer, Blackbird, QuickFiction, Mississippi Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Swink, and others. She has been awarded fellowships from the Corporation of Yaddo, the Jentel Artists Residency, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and the James A. Michener Fund. She has taught fiction writing at The University of the Arts, The University of Texas, and the Sackett Street Workshop. She recently published her first story collection, Walk Back From Monkey School with Press 53. I recently had the great honor of interviewing Kate about her work as a writer and as a curator for Rabbit Tales.
Olivia Kate Cerrone: Congratulations on the release of your first story collection, Walk Back From Monkey School! Each of these stories evoke such tenderness and play, capturing moments of hilarity and longing, while often absorbed by that conflicted, infuriatingly human dysfunction that can arise within families. I found your prose to be fresh and evocative throughout. Do you find yourself haunted by reoccurring themes or specific images in your fiction?
Kate Hill Cantrill: Thank you! And thank you for asking me to expand upon my stories here. I think you pretty much nailed it with: “…infuriatingly human dysfunction that can arise within families.” My parents’ divorce and my own divorce and all the huge splits around me in my life have been major influences in my work—the moves, the things we leave behind, the objects we pack up and take with us to go, the dust left in the corner of the room, the pet who comes with us and the pet who does not, the neighbor boy who gives you Skittles before you say goodbye. The only way I can keep it all is to put it in a story.
OKC: You revealed in an interview with Meg Pokrass of Fictionaut Five that you didn’t initially write Walk Back From Monkey School as a collection, but after different segments won three first runners’ up awards, you decided to organize the stories together into one complete manuscript. You note how the pieces “are very different in their style at times, but oh so similar in what they say. I’ve written several novels, but they were intended—short stories just come and smack me in the face and I am forced to write them. Long or short or mid-length, I can’t stop them when they come. They wake me at night.” Would you mind speaking to form? How do you approach writing flash versus writing a short story of more conventional length?
KHC: This is a tough one, because I haven’t figured it out yet in my own headball. There was a point when I wanted to claim Flash Fiction as my only love—it was what I felt I was truly very good at—I had started it in college and it satisfied the poet in me who didn’t understand line breaks, but then sometimes a story comes that didn’t fit that form and it would frustrate me. I would try to Flash it, then I would try to Short-Short it, then I’d get scared and think it was trying to be a novel (I’ve written five of those monsters), and then it just fell into a traditional length short story and it just felt right. The best example is “The Only Lovely Things About Them,” the final story in the collection. I could NOT stop that story from writing itself! I was hidden away in Vermont trying to work on another project and it wouldn’t leave my head as much as I wanted it to, so I just let it write itself. That sounds precious, but it really wouldn’t leave me. To this day I think it’s the best story I’ve ever written. I can’t seem to get a journal to take it, but it’s my baby. I wrote that without any strife or struggle. That’s the story that taught me that the short story teaches the writer what it wants to be in terms of length and pause and rhythm.
OKC: In an interview with SmokeLong Quarterly, you revealed that you would most like to see “a sense of play” used more often in fiction, as you see this creative form as more representative of art than real life. You go on to state how you’ve “also found that allowing for a sense of play in fiction can be the most moving way to deal with difficult issues.” I thought this was a really moving remark about the possibilities of fiction as a creative form. Have you been influenced by specific authors that have led you to this approach? What advice might you be able to give other writers to help them access a greater sense of play in their work?
KHC: I fear I state this idea better than I explain how to achieve it. I think of poets playing a lot. Robert Creeley comes to mind: Here is/ where there/ is. Or Elizabeth Bishop in, well, pretty much everything. I think of Amy Hempel having a woman accuse a woman of that woman’s dog putting faces on her mother’s grave (meaning feces) and Salinger having a guy fly in on a nairoplane, which sounds very restrictive, and appropriate for the situation. I get bored with flat-out, straight forward words and phrases—I think they should do three times more than what they mean if it’s possible. If you place them properly they can make you smile even when they are describing something terribly yuck yuck awful and sad.
OKC: Your wonderful talent has landed you fellowships at competitive residencies like Yaddo, the Jentel Artists Residency, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. What’s your residency experiences been like? How has engaging in a community of artists, if at all, shaped your own development as an artist?
KHC: Amazing, amazing! May I say it again? Amazing! I was brought up in a visual arts world and to be around those lovely crazy brains for a month at a time, along with writer artists, flooded me with artistic enthusiasm. I would go on studio visits and feel such a part of a world that I miss when I am just writing. Most of my dearest friends are visual artists and to look at their work and their process truly helps me to go back to my empty page and “paint” a story or “carve” one out of some mess of words I had placed there the day before. Again, that sounds sort of precious, but I so totally stand by that. I remember going on a studio visit at Yaddo to a very minimalist painter woman person who just sat and stared at her work for days it seemed, and she invited me to come and do the same and I did and I asked her if I could come again the next day and look at this one painting again and I told her that I really thought that it was finished and lovely and she got really excited because she said that she woke that morning and had decided the same thing! It was raining out and she was wearing a hoodie and looked snuggly like a chipmunk. I loved having interactions like that.
OKC: How did you get involved with the Rabbit Tales Reading and Performance Series in Brooklyn, NY?
KHC: I used to work for Rabbit Movers, which is also run by the Mac Daddy of Rabbit Hole Studios, Shawn Lyons. I was the dispatcher and office person. I also worked on shows in the studio and curated a show in the gallery, Super Happy Fun Time, Art As Play. (My mom, who is an amazing sculptor was one of the artists! She’s also been a part of Rabbit Tales). I told Shawn I wanted to do a reading series that was about story in all forms, not just words and he said, “is this just the wine talking or are you committed to this?” This was at an opening there so we were drinking Two-Buck Chuck wine. I said I was committed. I had run a series in Austin for 3 years and I told him that I was serious and so he said “Ok go.” So I did. It’s been great.
OKC: What I find most exciting and unique about this series is how you bring together such a diverse body of multi-genre artists—including poets, novelists, even opera singers and rap artists. As a curator, how do you choose the performers for Rabbit Tales?
KHC: I find people, or they find me, and I like their vibe, and I say, “Ok you have twenty-five minutes to do whatever you want.” I have never been disappointed. I like to be surprised so there is no submission process. I find that talent is overwhelming here so I never fear. Especially when friends recommend friends and I trust my friends and it’s always shazam. All I ask is that you tell a story with your puppets or your sculpture or your photography or your dance or your song or your film or your play or your poetry. It’s been amazing.
OKC: Thank you so very much for taking the time from your busy schedule to share your experiences with Nola Studiola Redux. Might you be able to share with our readers what’s next for you professionally as a writer?
KHC: Thank YOU so much for asking me to share! I’m hoping to teach again, maybe in conjunction to Rabbit Tales. I’d also like to finish my latest novel and maybe start doing some short plays—I’m really getting into seeing my work performed by others. Having my collection published has really lit the fire under my butt again and I’m once again really excited to keep tapping the keys!
For more information on Walk Back From Monkey School, please visit the Press 53 website here
The Rabbit Tales Reading and Performance Series takes place every second Thursday of the month in Dumbo, Brooklyn, NY. For more information visit: http://www.rabbitholeprojects.com/rabbit-tales