Okla Elliott: In the title story of your collection Swarm to Glory, a Jewish girl is placed in a Christian foster home, and the theme of religious affiliation and stereotypes emerge several times. What caused you to choose the situation of foster care as the backdrop for investigating Christian/Jewish relations and stereotypes?
Garnett Kilberg Cohen: That story began with the image of the swarm of bees, then I went back to the girls waking up in the room. I knew I wanted to get to the swarm but I wasn’t sure how or why. (Often my stories start with images.) I didn’t consciously start with the idea of exploring Christian/relations and stereotypes, though that certainly happened. I think I was more interested in the idea of alienation. Being a Jewish child in a fundamentalist Christian home created that sense of isolation. Neither a biological child nor an officially adopted one surrounded by brothers and sisters who weren’t actually brothers and sisters enhanced it. I suppose on a deeper, more psychological level, I was exploring my own identity as a person of both Christian (cultural and historical on my mother’s side) and Jewish (historical on my father’s and self-selected on my own) descent who has lived in both worlds. I have never felt totally of one or the other. It is something I have explored most of my adult life. Also, my first husband spent several years in a foster home so it is a situation with which I am familiar on a surface level.
OE: “Bad News” is structured as a phone conversation with first-person reactions from one side of the conversation. What difficulties did this structure create for you? And what sorts of opportunities?
GKC: Originally I tried to have it be a story where the narrator is simply thinking about what her mother says—no conversation, just one person talking and the other having an internal monologue in response to the speaker. That proved too awkward and self-conscious so I changed it to a conversation where both characters talk, but the readers are only privy to the narrator’s thoughts. The idea behind the story is based on something I read or heard about most conversations taking place more in the minds of the participants than in their actual words. I wanted to play with that idea. Once I figured that out, the story moved fairly quickly—though I think the conceit is one that would be hard to sustain in a longer story.
OE: What would you say are the key themes in the Swarm to Glory? How did you decide that these particular stories could or should live together in one volume? And, more generally speaking, which collections by other authors do you consider put together exceptionally well?
GKC: A theme that I’ve been told often emerges in my work is loss. And while I think that is a pretty common theme in literature, I have come to recognize that it is perhaps even more common in my stories. When I put this collection together I selected stories (mostly previously published in literary magazines) that deal with relationships, usually between women–mostly mothers and children (often daughters), but there are exceptions. The challenge with a collection is always to have a continuity and a connectedness, but not place together stories that are so similar that they become boring. I hope the strains/tensions in the relationships and the characters are all different enough, idiosyncratic enough. My favorite collections are linked ones: Olive Kitteridge; The Beggar Maid; Jesus’ Son; Winesburg, Ohio; The Goon Squad. But if I had to praise a collection of all time, it would be The Collected Works of Flannery O’Connor. Also, Lydia Davis’s collections are all pretty amazing, in an entirely different way from the other works I name.
OE: You teach at Columbia College, and the MFA program there seems central to the Chicago literary scene. How has the program benefited from the local community and what role do you see the program playing in the larger literary activities of Chicago?
GKC: I think of the Columbia College Chicago MFA program (and Creative Writing Department) in many ways as the hub of literary scene in Chicago. Our department has the largest number of full-time faculty of any CWD in the country. We have connections to most of the prominent (and many of the fledgling) literary organizations in the city, such as the Poetry Foundation and the Guild Literary Complex. Our Poetry and Nonfiction Reading series bring writers of national and international acclaim to the city and college. Each spring we offer we present StoryWeek, a week of panels, events and readings. Last spring alone, we hosted about a dozen readers, including Gary Snyder (poetry) and Jo Ann Beard (nonfiction) and Chris Albani (fiction). One of my favorite events is the City Wide Reading each spring where we invite poetry faculty from all the colleges and universities in the area to select one undergrad to read. Obviously, all the institutions around us—the other colleges and universities, the libraries and the cultural center—also give our students opportunities they might not have in a smaller city.
OE: If there were one thing you could change about the literary world, what would it be? What positive and negative trends do you see afoot in the literary world today?
GKC: I probably don’t have a lot new to say on this subject. But if there is one thing that annoys me it is the publishing world’s search for rock stars or to simply recreate what was just the hottest book. I would like to do a count of the number of books in the last few years that have had “Girl” in the title (and I’m talking about both commercial and literary publishers). Many want someone fresh out of Iowa or under the age of twenty-five. I like rock stars and freshness is good but craft and insight take time. Also many publishers (and this is more true of those in the commercial world) are ready to dismiss anyone who did not have a big splash with a first or second book. As Kelly Cherry’s narrator points out in her wonderful new novel, A Kind of Dream, Flannery O’Connor was right when she said that anyone who had lived through childhood has enough material to write about, but—since O’Connor only lived to be 39—she didn’t realize how much more insight and knowledge one would accrue later in life. This is true to some extent in many fields, but probably even more true with writing. I think that all of us fear that in the end the commercial world will be controlled by one or two big houses or simply Amazon.
That said, there are a lot of very cool things going on with publishing now. When I was starting out there were far fewer indie presses, so there weren’t a lot of options besides University Presses and Commercial Presses. And, of course, all the new kinds of media online have created exciting opportunities. The quick turn-around provided by online journals is really rewarding. Nothing like finishing something, getting it accepted, and seeing it up in a matter of days as opposed to waiting a year or two…or three. Same is true with print on demand. A negative side of new media is that electronic submissions has created such ease (and eliminated a lot of expense) that beginning writers don’t always need to be as thoughtful when submitting, which also means there is a lot more for serious editors to sift through.
Return to table of contents for Issue 9 Summer 2015.