Interview with Karen Sedaitis
The author of Soul Dark Soil talks about her book, the process of writing, the benefits of being published by a small press, on inner life, on the dangers of writing about subjects close to home, literary heroes, and her next book.
Interview by Magdalena Ball
Magdalena: Tell me about Soul Dark Soil. Would you say it had an overall theme or major themes running between the stories?
Karen: The stories were written with the intention of exploring people’s inner selves, especially those aspects of self that lie hidden below the surface of everyday interactions and words. These parts of people are often fiercely guarded, even from ourselves, and often somewhat dark – at least initially, although I feel it becomes less so with exposure.
Magdalena: How did the stories come about? Did you write them together, or for separate purposes; over a long period or short period of time?
Karen: Soul Dark Soil was written over the period of a year and a half (1998/99). The stories came from an emotionally raw period in my life, in which I craved something that was purely mine, and into which I escaped. Raising small children, having no privacy, meant that these fictitious people and landscapes provided boundaries otherwise missing.
Magdalena: This is your first published book, and your bio notes indicate that you’ve worked at a number of professions. Have you thought of yourself as a writer for a long time?
Karen: I wrote poetry as a teenager, and short stories as a young adult, and wanted to study literature once I left school in order to ‘be a writer’, but also wanted money, luxury, material stuff. Years later, after my children were born, I experienced a shift: moved into the country and away from material values and ambitions. I thought it seemed the ideal time to focus once again on writing, to pick it up. Actually, it became critical for happiness, and fed me through some dark days. I’ve always thought of myself as a writer, in the sense of loving words, loving to play with them, build with them, immerse myself in them. Being a voracious reader is also a large part of my life, providing a way into ‘other’.
Magdalena: How did you come to have the work published by Zaresky Press? Did you specifically seek out a small publisher (and if so, why?)
Karen: I read an article by Joseph Zaresky (publisher/director of Zpress) in Newswrite, the magazine of the NSW Writer’s Centre. In it, he discussed his reactions to the move against unsolicited manuscripts amongst mainstream publishing houses, and expressed his intention of ‘hanging out the red light’ on his own, in order to encourage writing which may not fit the mainstream profile. I was impressed, so sent some stories to him (the earliest stories from 1998.), and not long after that, he rang me and said he wanted to publish my collection of stories. He wanted about 150 pages of manuscript, and it took about a year to write, after which, the editing and production began. Because of the size of Zpress, I’ve been given very careful, and personal attention, which has been lovely.
Magdalena: In many ways, the stories follow the outline of nightmares. Some directly reference nightmares (Contractual Obligations), and others those things we fear most like losing our children; death by snakebite; lost love; abduction; car crash; insanity; emotional paralysis and death. Do you set out to confront these terrifying things in your work?
Karen: Much of our inner lives have the quality of dream, and also of nightmare – instinctive, intuitive, heartfelt, confused, fearful, joyful. In confronting these aspects of life (especially death, ironically.), we come alive, as if quickening the sleepier parts of ourselves. I think these things are things we all eventually come to in our thinking, and experiencing them, or anything we fear, broadens us, teaches us how to be more whole. I suppose that I’m drawn to look at them.
Magdalena: Many of your stories take on the landscape of domestic life; love, and in particular, raising young children. As a mother, were/are you worried that your children (and other loved ones) will pick up your book and mistake fiction for fact, taking personally those elements of motherhood including the exhaustion, fear, and feeling of being pulled at (and escape fantasies) which are a feature of a number of your stories?
Karen: Oh yes, definitely, and also of people who don’t know me thinking that the stories reflect my reality, or the reality belonging to my intimates. I’m only really interested in exploring truth in writing, in the sense of what lies underneath our social veneers. There’s always an overlapping between my fact and fiction, where an emotion or an experience which interests me may have its roots in the personal. This is because the nature of these stories comes from the personal in people. In my family, we do a lot of talking, especially about how we’re feeling, and it’s often not what the others particularly want to hear. but it’s certainly real. I think that’s a good thing to keep in mind with our intimates.
Magdalena: Your style is quite distinctive – sitting just below the surface of your narrators’ voices. It has an almost poetic feel. Do you write poetry, or other forms of writing?
Karen: I love poetry. I’ve written it since adolescence, and read it since childhood. I expect that one day I’ll have the courage to publish some, but for now, I lack confidence. Poetry is even more personal than prose, and I think it’s the most purely artistic expression of the inner self, which is what I love about it. I also like to write inflamed letters to newspaper editors.
Magdalena: What made you decide to study for a BA in professional writing? Do you feel it has helped your work?
Karen: Insecurity made me enroll, and no, I haven’t found it beneficial at all. I was disappointed to discover that virtually none of the students I met were seriously interested in writing, and I’m sure this affects the attitudes of teachers. I found myself effortlessly doing very well and yearning for challenge, stimulation. and not finding it, and wondering what the hell I was doing there when I could be using the time to write. Consequently, I’ve deferred my studies. I expect I’ll be kicked for saying so!
Magdalena: Who are your literary heroes?
Karen: At the moment, Turgenev, having just finished Sketches From A Hunter’s Album. In the past: Keats, Blake, Wilde, Tolstoy, Patrick White, David Malouf, Ian McEwan, Alice Munro, Greek mythology, fairy tales. I love children’s literature, get masses of pleasure from reading good books to my children. We’ve just finished Roald Dahl, and are reading Lewis Carroll at the moment.
Magdalena: Are you working on something new? What can your readers expect to see next from you?
Karen: I am six chapters into a novel, Blue Beard’s Beloved, which is a completely different experience to that of writing Soul Dark Soil. I find it challenging, and engrossing, and frightening – I feel as if I am really exposed, as a writer, as a person, because I try to pour so much into it in order to bring it to life. A short story can be stopped once the momentum slows, or reaches a natural eddy in the flow of the tale, but in writing a novel I try to keep the story, and the characters, moving along, moving somewhere. This story gives me more scope to explore a few characters in detail, and I’m very interested in women particularly: women’s will, women’s ambition and hunger, the power of curiosity – as well as the romantic relationship. I am inspired by questions of Blue Beard’s surviving wife, and the relationship between the two, hence the title. I expect it will be finished early next year (2002).