An interview with Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

Interview by Magdalena Ball

Talk to me about Thirsty. What gave rise to the book?

Thirsty is the story of one woman’s rather unusual journey through an abusive marriage, set against the backdrop of a Pittsburgh steel town at the turn of the twentieth century. Because I have a history of domestic violence in my family, I’ve done a good bit of thinking about it over the years, both personally and as a writer.

As I’ve moved through the world, I’ve witnessed how being a victim of domestic violence often is passed from mother to daughter…like pearls or a wedding dress. This cycle of abuse—along with the idea of genetic memory—tweaked my storytelling curiosity early on. In writing Thirsty, I wanted to explore the mother-daughter dynamic, how a young woman gets involved in an abusive relationship in the first place, why some women manage to leave abusive relationships behind, and why others simply cannot. The more I wrote and discovered, the more I realized how tender and complicated these situations are. As I wrote Klara’s story, I kept coming to the question of courage: “What is it? Who has it? Who can get it? What does it look like? And finally, can Klara ever find the courage to leave Drago?”

In addition, I’ve got a bit of an obsession with steel. I grew up in a suburb of Pittsburgh, and my maternal grandparents lived just down the road a bit in Clairton, one of Pittsburgh’s most dynamic steel communities. In the 1960s and 1970s, I spent a lot of time at their house with the smokestacks of the mills bearing down and barges hauling steel along the Monongahela River. My grandfather and great uncles worked in the steel mills so it was a big part of our family story. When the steel industry collapsed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, so did Pittsburgh’s steel communities. At that point, the storyteller in me jumped up and said, “Ooohh, there’s something to be told here.”

Somewhere along the line, these two inspirations merged and Thirsty was born.

Did you write the book after moving to China? Was it inspired by your travels?

Actually I wrote the first scene of Thirsty in 1992 when I was a grad student at Columbia College in Chicago…long before I moved to China. Once I dug in, I was hooked. I became obsessed with steel mills, steel making, the life of women in Pittsburgh at the turn of the twentieth century, the psychology behind a woman’s reason for staying in an abusive marriage, and the journey of the main character, Klara Bozic.

Since moving to China in March 2006, I’ve actually discovered that Shanghai today is in some ways strangely similar to steel communities in Pittsburgh at the turn of the twentieth century. For example, the streets of Shanghai are filled with cart-pulling entrepreneurs who specialize in various goods and services; there’s a guy selling oranges, a woman collecting wood to recycle, a man selling stockings and nylon socks, a knife sharpener, and lots more. There were cart-pulling entrepreneurs all over the place in Pittsburgh steel communities at the turn of the twentieth century; you’ll see them when you read Thirsty. Who would have thought? (To get a glimpse into my writing life in Shanghai, check out the video interview with me at YouTube.

Tell me a little about your life in China – why did you migrate?

In 2005, my husband (who was then my boyfriend) said to me, “How would you feel about living in China?”

“China?” I said.

“Mmmhhm,” he said, “my company wants me to go there for a couple of years.”

Until that moment, I hadn’t ever considered living in China. Italy? Sure. Greece? Absolutely. But China?

It didn’t take me long to make a decision. I was an adventurous writer and a woman in love. Why not move to China? After a few short seconds, I said, “Sure, let’s go.”

Five months later we were married and living in Shanghai. I didn’t speak a word of Mandarin, didn’t know a soul, and honestly, knew very little about Chinese culture (other than what I’d gleaned during our three-day cultural training class). But I was fascinated. I grabbed my Mac and my camera and set off. I’ve been exploring ever since. (My second book is about China.)

How did you find Swallow Press (or did they find you)?

For the publication of Thirsty, I owe a big fat thanks to my good friend and writing colleague Christina Katz (a.k.a. the Writer Mama). She has been one of Thirsty’s greatest cheerleaders since we were in grad school together at Columbia. (She was also one of Thirsty’s first readers.)

In early 2008, Christina was at a writers’ conference in the United States. As always, she was talking up Thirsty to fiction folks, and on this particular day, the timing was right. She said something like, “My friend Kristin has written this amazing novel called…..” Someone looked up and said, “Ooh, Kristin should send the manuscript to Swallow Press. Sounds like a good fit.”

I did. And voilà! A short time later I had a book deal.

Talk to me about some of the promotional complexities that you’ve got. Is most of your promotion via Internet? Are you able to tap into ex-pat writing groups/communities or do you really feel like your day to day life is in one location and your ‘book life’ is in another?

Promoting a debut novel in the U.S. while living halfway around the world in Shanghai, China, is, well, a little nuts. After all, I live in a country that “manages” access to the Internet. I’m blocked from all social media sites—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.—as well as many blogs and lots of writer-related sites. (I’m even blocked from my own blog!)

Thankfully I’m a creative soul and a determined author. And because I’m also the reigning queen of VPNs (Virtual Private Networks), I manage to get to blocked websites on a fairly regular basis and therefore connect quite often with readers and writers.

In late September, I flew home to the U.S. for the launch of Thirsty. (October 1 was the official release date.) And from the time the airplane touched down, I was the (very exhausted, but very happy) marketing maven. I did an author’s feast at the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association convention in Cleveland, a flurry of radio interviews, a webcast interview with the books editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and a bunch more things that have become a blur. I also read and signed books at a number of bookstores in Pittsburgh, Massachusetts, and Maine, went back to my high school alma mater to yak with students in the creative writing classes, and talked to anyone anywhere who looked like they might be a reader. (I was the one in the international terminal at the airport calling, “Hey, hey, you! Yes, you! Do you read? Have you seen my debut novel Thirsty?”?)

We also have a terrific reading/writing community in Shanghai, and folks are very supportive of fellow expats. In the coming months, I’ll be doing as many events in Asia as possible. Right now I’m scheduled to speak to a handful of reading groups and give a talk at the most amazing Shanghai International Literary Festival (March 2010).

Living in China and publishing in the U.S. has forced me to think outside of the box. There’s lots more creative marketing ahead. Stay tuned!

You’re a real juggler aren’t you? (I know what it’s like!) Tell me about some of the things you’re juggling right now, and some of the balls you hope to add into the juggling mix in the future.

Yep, if this writing thing doesn’t pan out, I’m sending my resume to Cirque du Soleil.

Seriously though, in addition to being a new author, I’m mom to a brilliant, energetic, chatty 22-month-old. I blog, run a reading series in Shanghai for local writers, teach writing, and write a monthly column for Writers on the Rise. [link =] I’m close to completing my second novel and a memoir (that’s the book about China). Since my husband is from Ireland and I’m from the U.S., we do a good bit of international travel. Therefore I spend a good bit of each year recovering from jetlag.

All in all, it’s a pretty cool life.

About the interviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Repulsion Thrust, Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse and She Wore Emerald Then. She runs a monthly radio program podcast The Compulsive Reader Talks.