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"I Will Carry You to Heaven": An Interview with Katharine Coldiron

Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Ms., The Rumpus, Brevity, The Offing, and elsewhere. She earned a B.A. in film studies & philosophy from Mount Holyoke College and an M.A. in creative writing from California State University, Northridge. She has read many, many books. Born in the American South to a professor of poetry and translation and a U.S. Navy captain, and raised along the East Coast, she now lives where she belongs, in Los Angeles. She blogs at the Fictator.

Her essay, "Carry Me to Heaven," appeared in Issue Ninety-One of The Collagist.

Here, Katharine Coldiron talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about creating collages, female power, and books she hates.

I’d like to break down your process of creating this literary collage into a few questions. First of all, how did you choose the three texts that you pulled language from? What connected these works to one another in your mind?

The simplest answer is that all three of these texts are about female power.

“Ride of the Valkyries” was co-opted definitively by Francis Ford Coppola to depict masculine warmongering in Apocalypse Now. While I can’t really argue with the effectiveness of that combination, it didn’t strike me until well into adulthood, after I’d heard that song dozens of times and seen the entire Ring cycle, that the song is really about the Valkyries, their strength, their joy. A translation into English, and particularly seeing the lines out of context of the famous melody, makes the truth a bit clearer.

Other Powers links multiple kinds of female power and shows how they manifested in a giddy, unstable era of American history. That’s not so different from where we are now. As I listened to the audiobook, I kept being struck by the parallels to our time: the argument over birth control, the female presidential candidate all but dragged behind the back of a truck by her hair, the subversive ways that repressed women seized power.

And Mega-City Redux gathers together powerful women from several eras, across history and fiction, and tumbles them across the country with extraordinary compression and poetic power. I’m so obsessed with that book. In the fall of 2016 I bought ten copies and sent them out to friends. So at the time the book was walking all over my brain, to such an extent that it bled into my own creative work.

The more complicated, and possibly more true, answer is that the process of writing, for me, has evolved into a process of crashing one thing into another thing and seeing if they make sparks. Because my brain connects things weirdly, these three texts made sense together in my head before I realized more consciously what they had in common.

Now, once you had chosen the texts, how did you go about selecting lines from them? Was this exercise a new kind of experiment for you, or did you have an established process for creating such a piece? As the work developed, did you discover anything new about the texts by engaging with them in this way?

Oh, man, this is hard to answer. There’s one easy part: this was a totally new experiment. I make visual collages when I’m creatively stuck or overstimulated, but I’d never made a sentence collage, neither of my own nor of other people’s work. The reasons why I never did before and the reasons why I decided to this time would take too many words to explain.

I skimmed the paper version of Other Powers after I audiobooked it and marked the lines that particularly hit me, either for their power, their relationship to the present moment, or their strange poetry. Like Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s letter requesting suffrage songs, listing those four spirits’ names. Something about it was funny and desperate and heartfelt and maybe a little greedy. Lines that could do all that, I wanted to point out and recontextualize.

The libretto from that section of Die Walküre I’d printed out weeks earlier for reasons I no longer remember and it was kicking around my desk. The writing, on that song at least, was not amazing. I mean, it’s meant to be amazingly sung, not written. But I liked that the Valkyries’ conversation, especially before Brünnhilde arrives, is sort of mundane. Look, those two warriors’ horses are mad at each other, LOL. It’s no match for the music. Except for the invented words, “Hojotoho!” and “Heiaha!”, which are so expressive of the Valkyries and their mission. They give me little shivers just to think them.

I wanted to quote pretty much all of Mega-City Redux, but I typed what I loved most (half the book, probably) and then, when I was collaging, removed what didn’t fit. It was an intuitive process rather than a scientific one. I wish I could be more specific, because I don’t want to sound like a flake, but I really was in sort of a trance as I moved the sentences around.

The only thing I really learned about any of the texts was a new appreciation for the economy of Alyse Knorr’s language from typing it word for word. Otherwise, I apologize—this seems like an arrogant answer—but I think the texts laced with each other so beautifully that there was very little for me to see that was new. Or that was different from how I perceived them when I came up with the idea of collaging them in the first place.

According to a note at the end of your piece, “Only one sentence was written by the author.” Can it be told now which sentence is your invention? If so, please tell us why you felt it was a necessary addition to the text. If not, why do you prefer to preserve the mystery?

I’d like to be David Lynch and shrug mysteriously, but that’s not really me. It’s “I will carry you to heaven.” It was important to me to include that line, which had been beating inside me like a second heart for months.

I wanted the reader (assuming she gave a damn, and didn’t just want to enjoy the piece) simultaneously to play Where’s Waldo, and, more seriously, to probe into the nature of collage. Does it matter which line I wrote, which lines Knorr wrote, which lines Wagner wrote? Is the point the source texts, or the aesthetic result of crashing them together? Is my style going to show through in how I put the texts together, or in how I put the words of my own sentence together? One more than the other? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I’m interested in prodding readers to ask them.

You run an interview series called “Books I Hate (and Also Some I Like),” published by Entropy. If I may turn the tables, what inspires you to hate a book? Would you care to share any of your own most hated books?

Oooooh, thanks for this opportunity. A number of the books I hate don’t bear any fault for my hatred because they’re just not right for me. I strongly disliked How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and gave up in exasperation halfway through, but I have objective proof that book is good. It reacts badly with my brain, is all.

I deeply, deeply hated The Golden Notebook. I know that I am 100% wrong about this. To me, the characterization was wooden, the scenes fell not just flat but dead, and the language grated like nails on a chalkboard. But it’s the most famous book of a Nobel Prize-winning writer, so clearly it’s my problem, not the book’s.

Books that do bear fault for me hating them are usually lazy in some way, or sexist, or racist. Updike at his worst, for example, has all these qualities. The exceptionally lazy E.L. James, who hasn’t learned her craft whatsoever, and who as a bonus has caused real harm in the world. A Booker Prize winner from some years ago, Vernon God Little, which was so obscene, unfunny, and obsessed with incorrect American stereotypes that I couldn’t get through 50 pages.

A book I hated very reluctantly was The Sellout. I’m pretty sure I’m wrong about this one, too, and it bothers me so much to be a privileged white woman hating on the well-researched, prize-winning satire of an African American author. But the character development was so poor, the women were shallow, inconsistent tropes, and at bottom it felt like a gimmick stretched into a novel. Such a profound racial critique, particularly when it gets as much attention as The Sellout did, is extremely important to the progress of our culture, but I found the book badly executed at the ground level and I couldn’t get over it.

And for some reason I hate character studies. I love movie-based character studies, but book-based ones are absolute death. Waiting, by Ha Jin, made me moan aloud while I was reading it.


What writing project(s) are you working on now?

How much time do you have?

I just finished a conceptual novel for which I’m trying to find a press.

I’m shopping a book proposal for a writing reference book for newbies.

I’m building a collection of hybrid essays which each involve fiction, nonfiction, and film criticism. I’ve written four of these essays and published two (“The Girl on the Bike” and “Underside”), and I have sketches or partial drafts for four more. I don’t know when that’ll be done, because I’m stuck on an emotionally difficult one.

My friend Neil, who runs Electric Dreamhouse Press in the UK, has solicited work from me for an anthology about “films that never were.” That one’s in the idea stage, but it’s developing well. He’s asked me if I’m interested in writing something else, too, an essay about the film Five Million Years to Earth. I’m enthusiastic about that, but it’s tentative, and the deadline is really far away.

I’m two chapters into a novel about the character of Ilsa from Casablanca.

What I’m actually putting on paper right now is something about abandoned or ruined places. I visited the Salton Sea in October, and in November I saw the St. Andrews Cathedral in St. Andrews, Scotland, which is little but a ruin filled with gravestones. These places were very different, but both impacted me significantly, and I’m trying to work out what the writing about this will look like in its final form. At the moment it’s just paragraphs.

And in between all these are book reviews and short takes and just-regular-essays and blog posts and pitches by the dozen. Hustle, hustle, hustle.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

Lately I can’t shut up about Rosalie Morales Kearns’s novel Kingdom of Women. It’s another one I want to buy up and send out to my friends. It’s not just wonderful, it’s necessary. In poetry I really liked Ana Božičević’s Joy of Missing Out, which is both po-mo and meaningful. In December I finally read The Rings of Saturn, my mentor’s favorite book. I see why she loves it, but I prefer David Markson.

I’ve been reading mostly books for review in the last couple of months, so recommending them here might be repetitive. I’ve also been reading some books for research that have been useful but not extraordinary. Louise Brooks’s essays were not the best thing I’ve ever read about Hollywood (that would be West of Eden or Gods Like Us), but they revealed a fascinating woman about whom I can’t wait to write. And Dworkin and Goldsmith’s conceptual writing anthology Against Expression made me feel like my ideas weren’t so crazy after all.

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