Kate Brandt likes her work to pose the biggest, deepest questions. She’s a shortform writer (essays, travel writing and short stories) but when she embarked on a novel she knew she’d found her instrument. It allowed her, she says, the luxury of ‘creating a world without having to fit what I have to say into a shorter form’.
I like my writing to go deep. I use writing to pose and puzzle out the questions I ask myself in life — who are we, and what are we doing here. Not too long ago, I went to a lecture of a literature professor I had in college –Lee Schlesinger. Lee spoke in that lecture of ‘the enhanced weirdness of the universe’. I want my writing to reflect that weirdness.
I love that! I think I’ve always looked for enhanced weirdness too.
I’ve struggled with depression most of my life, so the question for me throughout the writing of my novel Hope for the Worst was: what do we do with our pain?
You describe Hope for the Worst as ‘informed by experiences of Tibetan Buddhism, magic, self-delusion, desire, despair and healing’, as well as your own travels in Tibet. How do they combine into one story?
There are different kinds of magic. One kind of magic is the it-can’t-be-true kind of magic we see stage magicians produce—rabbits are pulled out of hats; women are cut in half, but live. But there is another kind of magic also, which is the magic of being enchanted by someone.
We all know what it is to fall in love–how the world shifts and everything glows and seems to have a deeper meaning. There’s a poem by a Polish poet that reads something like this: Now that you’re gone,/a glass of wine is just a glass of wine again. That is the kind of magic I wanted to capture in Hope for the Worst, which is really about passion and the way it lifts us higher than we’ve ever been, but can also drop us into free fall from a great height.
In the novel, Ellie, who is in her 20s, gradually falls in love with her much-older Buddhist teacher Calvin. Ellie is at a low point in her life—quite disenchanted by what she finds in the capitalistic frenzy of 1980s New York City. She is also carrying emotional trauma from the breakup of her family, and as a result, she is leery about humanity in general. Calvin seems like exactly what she needs —he is shiny and distracts her from the emptiness of her life, and he also seems to have the answers to all the puzzles she hasn’t been able to solve.
When Ellie is later rejected by Calvin, it’s a catastrophe for her. In the end, it’s her women friends who not only help her heal, but also help her realize that we have to save ourselves.
The title has quite a twist.
The title is an ironic twist on the notion of tantra. Most Westerners think of tantra in the sense of tantric sex, but a definition that I have heard is ‘everything in the service of enlightenment’. This means that you don’t shy away from the ugly aspects of life—anger and despair. Rather, you learn to use them as energy for transcendence. In the story, Ellie’s life comes to a point where it really feels like it couldn’t be worse. The only hope is that she’s hit bottom – there’s no place to go but up.
Are you a practising Buddhist? Or anythingelse-ist?
I’m very serious about Buddhism. It is my go-to for answers and my belief system. I’ve studied, read many books, and had certain experiences that have helped me realize, rather than just conceptualize, aspects of Buddhist philosophy. But when it comes to actual practice, I am half-assed at best. I do try to meditate 15 minutes every day, and I’ve been to one short retreat, but I’m no yogi, unfortunately.
You took an MFA. What did you gain from that?
I completed an MFA at Sarah Lawrence College. I was 35, and most of the other students in the program were in their 20s, so I didn’t fit in with many of them. The MFA gave me the time to write, and also gave me the chance to meet one-on-one with teachers, which was really helpful to me.
To be honest, I don’t always find writing workshops helpful. There are 15 people sitting around a table, and each of them gives you feedback that seems to contradict the feedback of others. Also, these people may not yet be experienced writers, and have their own agendas. Most valuable for me were the one-on-one meetings with teachers who were experienced writers themselves, and felt no competition with me. I learned some valuable lessons from my teachers there—Joan Silber, Kathleen Hill and Myra Goldberg—and I’m very grateful.
In the end, what was most transformative was the friends I made there. We’ve stayed friends, and we now have a writer’s group that I simply cannot imagine my life without. These are women I have grown through decades with, sharing marriages, the births of children, and various catastrophes like cancer and divorce. They know me as well as or better than I know myself, and I can trust them with my work and my not-always-confident self.
When did you decide to take your writing seriously?
I first started to write when I was backpacking around the world in 1986-87. There were so many moments when time seemed to stop, and I wanted to capture those moments and feelings. I kept a journal of my experiences, and when I returned, I kept writing.
What I’ve realised over the years is that writing is a necessity for me. I’ve mentioned that I’ve often suffered from depression. Writing was, and is, an escape, and I take it seriously because I want what I write to be worth reading.
What writers have steered your style or opened your eyes?
I suppose Joan Didion has influenced me, as she has so many. For this book, I would name Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk and Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder as models for this kind of story — you go someplace far away, and it changes you.
Was anyone in your family a writer?
My father is a writer. He’s been a huge influence on who I am. When I came home from elementary and middle school, I would go up to his study and he would sit in an armchair and read aloud to me from the classics, while I lay on the rug underneath. When I got older, he would slip typewritten poems by Wallace Stevens under my door, and give me books to read. He taught me the joys of the life of the mind, and the way that the world of books could be an escape and a refuge.
But we have also had a rocky relationship ever since I was 14. I saw first hand the impact that writerly ambition can have on loved ones, and have consequently tried to distance myself from the egoistic, compare-myself-to-other-writers aspect of writing.
You’re also a teacher in adult literacy. Is that something you’ve always done?
My entire adult working life has been spent in the field of adult literacy. I fell into it by accident, but immediately realised how lucky I was to have happened on to it. People treat each other like human beings. Imagine that, in a workplace.
Teaching is a wonderful complement to writing, because it’s creative, but in a different way from writing. And it always gives back. I’ve been teaching since 1990, and I am very fortunate to work with some of the most creative and dedicated co-workers you could wish for, learning along with them, and with the adult students who pass through our classrooms.
Of course, my favorite aspect of the job is teaching writing. My students are mostly immigrants and the working poor. It’s pretty much a given that they have been through multiple traumas. Their stories are very moving, and I feel privileged to help them get those stories out.
What are you working on next?
Nothing. And I’m very depressed about it. It’s been very difficult to finally finish a 10-year project, and then start all over. I’m trying to coax myself gently into being a beginner again.
Are you happiest writing or revising?
Writing is that fantastic flow experience when every word seems to come on its own and you think you’re a genius. It’s wonderful, but to me, revision is queen. I always ask visual artists: is there a point at which you can no longer save a painting or drawing? I am so grateful that, with writing, you can always go back to the drawing board.
I revised this novel extensively. When I look back through my old Word documents, I chuckle because the names of the documents are increasingly desperate. There’s ‘If at first you don’t succeed’, ‘Try, Try, Try’ and my favourite, ‘Ahhhhh’. To me, trying to figure out how the parts of a story need to fit together is like struggling with a Rubik’s cube.
What’s your process?
My process is to write the best draft I can, then give it to my writer’s group and get feedback. Those friends are my eyes, and help me see the story differently when I can’t see it clearly myself for the life of me. This was a long process, and there were times when I doubted whether I could pull it off, but they believed in me and kept me going.
Early bird or night owl?
I’m a morning writer. I think I’ve heard that morning writers are analytical writers, while night writers are intuitive.
What’s on your writing desk?
I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but most of the time I write sitting up in bed.
Five books you’d save if your house was on fire:
The King and the Corpse by Heinrich Zimmer. My father gave me this book when I was in my teens, and I still love it. Zimmer was the less well-known teacher of Joseph Campbell, and his writing about Eastern religion and philosophy was formative for me.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Magic! This may be the only book I’ve ever read twice.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel, by Suzanne Clarke. Magic!
Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey. When I read this book, I saw what could be done with the epistolary form.
One Night Two Souls Went Walking by Ellen Cooney. Such grace!
Find Kate Brandt on her website, Facebook and tweet her on @kbrandtwriter . Find Hope For The Worst here.
There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.