On my bedside table:
Kate Gray takes an unblinking look at bullying in her debut novel, Carry the Sky. It’s 1983 at an elite Delaware boarding school. Taylor Alta, the new rowing coach, arrives reeling from the death of the woman she loved. Physics teacher Jack Song, the only Asian American on campus, struggles with his personal code of honour when he gets too close to a student. These two young, lonely teachers narrate the story of a strange and brilliant thirteen-year-old-boy who draws atomic mushroom clouds on his notebook, pings through the corridors like a pinball, and develops a crush on an older girl with secrets of her own. Carry the Sky sings a brave and honest anthem about what it means to be different in a world of uniformity.
The first line:
One foot in the single shell like a blue heron lifting off water, I pushed off from the dock and lowered myself into the seat.
The lucky 13 interview:
Thirteen questions with Kate Gray.
- Kate, let’s start by talking a little bit about your writing process. You are a poet, as well as a novelist. Has writing your first novel, Carry The Sky, changed your process?
Yes and no. When I sit down to write, preferably in the wee hours of the morning, just before sunrise, an image gets me going—something sensory, a visceral thing. As Sylvia Plath wrote, “Start with the object and the poem will come.” Perhaps that’s why there are so many birds and bugs in the novel. Writing narrative turned my poetry narrative, and I’ve had to wrestle it back to lyrical. Not knowing how to write fiction (and I feel like I’m still a beginner), I relied on a writing group to knock me sideways, teach me about dialogue and voice, and so much more.
- I will forever be grateful to you for countless reasons, one being for teaching me about Tom Spanbauer’s ‘dangerous writing’; using fiction as the lie to tell the truth truer. Would you mind sharing how the process of telling your truth through writing this ‘lie’ has affected or changed how you experience that truth now?
Great question. The truth is that the year I spent teaching in a boarding school, when losing this precious friend and that precious student (spoiler alert), crushed me. Moving 3,000 miles away and leaving almost everything behind weren’t enough to save me. It took me 20 years and a lot of therapy to deal with the effects of those traumas. Fiction was the only medium I could use to wrap my arms around that time. Sure, I wrote some poems, but I needed a bigger bucket to contain the bigger story. Turning my friend into a Coloradan, for instance, and creating that young boy’s family were ways for me to understand, put distance, touch in a safe way those powerful and personal events, to hold them closer rather than push them farther away, make them truer.
- Focusing now on how integral the setting is to this novel – I can’t imagine it being set anywhere other than by a river. You chose not just any river either – the river Carry the Sky is set on is the Schuylkill. Could you share something about the role the river plays in Carry the Sky, and what it means to you and the story?
Well, that river was really where the accident happened that took my friend, and it was the river where that group of girls competed and won. But that river hosts some of the most elite rowers in the world, and it has one of the greatest water hazards in the sport. Often people romanticize a river, and yes, the herons and otters and geese that live on or near it are magic. But rivers are also battle grounds, places of conquest and redemption. At the beginning of the “year of the book” as we called it, the family and friends of “Sarah” gathered to celebrate her 30 years after she died. We gathered at the banks of the Charles River in Boston where she had competed in 4 races. It was fitting to tell stories about her as rowers were passing on the water. One moment in particular helped me heal: two geese came in low over the water, missing the bridges and the competitors, landed right in front of where we gathered. I realized that she had never left, that she and I would always share the water, the seasons, the journey. The river brought all of us together, brought us resolution.
- Delaware is so vividly drawn in the book. How did you conjure it in your writing? For example, did you revisit the boarding school area or the Schuylkill during the writing process, or did distance from the real setting serve you better?
Only recently, after the book was published, did I revisit the campus. I’m glad because it’s different than I conjured. (I like my version better.) But I spent years going to that campus because my older sister and brother-in-law worked there. So often memory is much more powerful than reality. And fiction can make the flat black driveway of the boarding school a lot longer than it really was.
- What are some of the references or inspirations you sought out while writing your book? A particular library? Or a piece of art, a song, or a fairytale? Is there a place you most draw inspiration from?
I did a lot of research, but not in a library. Online. To place me into the ache of that time, I often listened to R. Carlos Nakai’s Canyon Trilogy, the Native American flute player, or to George Winston’s Autumn because that’s what “Carla” gave me that year. It put me right back into my apartment that year, the beige carpet, the stale yellow and brown plaid couch, the fridge where I smelled the cold inside, where I kept only butter and a six-pack of beer. I also have photos from that time, and letters from my friend who died.
- What was the hardest part of writing this book?
The hardest part was writing the pieces about the abuse Carla suffered. Some of those were based on similar experiences I’ve had, but not completely. Putting myself into her head, especially as a child, made me sweat, made me want to throw down my chair, and run into the street. But I didn’t. As Ron Carlson says, “A writer is the one who stays in the room.” His voice would keep me in my seat.
- Something that has resonated so deeply with me whilst reading about your process of writing Carry the Sky is when you talked about biking long distances to figure out how lines blurred, to make sure the feelings you had while ‘writing what scared you’ weren’t stored in your muscles. Is physical activity something you connect with writing in general for this reason?
Memory is stored in muscle. I’ve known that for awhile. What I didn’t know is that creativity is also stored in muscle. I believe (something that has become more clear through training in the Gateless method) the body the vehicle for the spirit, that in order to be creative, we have to listen to our creative spirit through the medium of our body. Rowing and long-distance biking have helped me find what I needed to find in the story. Recently, on a bike ride, I was climbing the hill of a bridge nearby in Portland, and while my legs were pushing up and down, I looked at the water I was crossing and realized that Plath would use swimming as a metaphor. I could put myself under water because she grew up swimming, and I grew up swimming, what a huge vein to mine. As I coasted down the hill on the bridge, I picked out the context in which I could use that metaphor: her lust.
- More generally now, what do you think most characterises your writing?
The poetry of it. What I mean is that the foundation of my writing is rhythm, associative logic, sound, and image. There has to be slant to it, or it’s not mine. My fiction isn’t for everyone because the logic makes leaps. I’ll use sound or association to drive plot sometimes. The reader has to do some work. And I’ll use repetition and punctuation to create voice. These devices are from poetry: they’re a way to manipulate the reader’s body to replicate the action in the story. For instance, if something intense is going on, I want the sentences to be long, so that the reader becomes breathless. My fiction attempts to create a visceral response in a very literal way.
- What do you like to read now in your free time?
This year I’ve met so many generous writers, and I’m trying to read their amazing books. I’ve finished Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson, and I marvel at muscles he uses to express very difficult experiences, and I’m in the middle of a young adult novel by Karelia Stetz-Waters, Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before, which captures the worst homophobic times in Oregon history. I’m thoroughly enjoying her voice and characters. Also, I try to read a Plath poem a day, type it so that my hands hold her words, and then write a response to her poem. This method helps me get her language into my body.
- Where do you best like to write?
I’m totally spoiled. I have a little studio in the back of our place in Portland, OR when I can retreat and write. And my partner and I have a little house way out in the country, removed from civilization, 8 miles from a town of 400 residents. Those two places provide the most delicious silence and solace. In the remote place, there are few birds. As I write these responses, the only birds I’ve seen today are Indigo Buntings, fat blue males and smaller brown females. Without the visual distraction (although birds are magic), I can more fully enter the world I’m creating.
- Do you have any writerly superstitions or practices? Light a candle before you work, throw salt over her left shoulder, lucky underpants, drink coffee only from your Write Like A Motherfucker mug?
Hm… Have you been watching? Sometimes I do light a candle. Sometimes I do meditate before I start. But not usually for superstition’s sake. Mostly to get into my body, to be less alone.
- If you could immerse yourself for a day in the world of any book that you’ve read, which would it be?
Most of the books that come to mind are terrifying, stunning in their writing, but terrifying: Beloved by Toni Morrison, for instance. I would not want to spend a second in the horrors of slavery. Maybe So Far from God by Ana Castillo because of the wildness, the magic, the powerful women on the border between the U.S. and Mexico.
- One of the countless things I dearly loved about this novel was the astonishing and refreshing beauty of the prose. There were moments when the work sung so searingly from the page I had to stop, read it out loud and take a breath before I carried on. This is your first novel. Will you turn your poetic hand to fiction writing again?
You are way too kind, my friend. Your heart is very large and open to be able to sink so deeply into someone else’s work. Thank you. Yes, I’m writing. My project involves Sylvia Plath as a character, and my aunt who shared the same dorm for two years at Smith College. Writing from the perspective of these two women in the early 1950s is an honor. I’m learning about the choices women had at the time, and I’m exploring class, gender, and anti-Semitism. In other words, the novel is dark and revealing. Surprisingly.
Full disclosure: I loved Kate Gray the moment I met her in Prague at an interdisciplinary storytelling conference in 2013. It was the first time I had told my story at a gathering of my academic and literary peers. We attended each other’s seminars; Kate sat at the back of the room in mine, facing me front and centre. When my seminar was over and I’d started to stop shaking, she raised her hand.
When you are tired, when you are low, when your story has itself wrapped around your neck and is making it hard to breathe, just know I am in the world and I am cheering you on every word of the way at your writing desk.
Remembering that now gives me goosebumps afresh. Kate had perhaps said to me what she needed to hear thirty years ago. Carry the Sky has lived in Kate, on her skin, wagging her until she wrote it into a novel. During our lives overlapping for a few days in Prague, Kate shared with me the story behind this searing, visceral, stunning novel, in the corner of a Baltic restaurant while Slovenian folk songs played around us. When Carry the Sky was published last year, my palms itched to hold a copy and devour the story on its pages. But, there’s always the trepidation, isn’t there – what if I don’t like the work of a person I adore? I was one hundred pages in before I even remembered that that had been a concern.
Carry the Sky is a novel unlike any I can recall reading recently; its lyrical prose, astonishing imagery, sense of daring, and courage made it nearly impossible to put down. It gives you its all, and you can’t help but watch, almost through splayed fingers at times, as the characters are each drawn by their own tides of loss, grief, yearning, and hope. Conjured from her own experiences teaching at a boarding school in Delaware, it took Kate eight years to write and a further two to edit, which every perfectly-placed word and vivid, visceral scene shines in testament to. This is a poet’s prose. The language is visceral, utterly beautiful, and blurry, then articulate in all the right ways as it reveals and charts the undercurrents raging in each character, who we carry inside of us.
Readers aching for a story to fill their lungs and limbs with, to be reminded you’re not a lone, to remember that even if it feels like life has abandoned you, you can recover in the way you need to.
To be refreshed by the power of fiction that mines emotional truth, and doesn’t shy away from shame, bad choices, or the beautiful mess of human complexity.
For your headphones:
A playlist straight from the storyworld: 1983 in all its synthesiser glory.
Carry the Sky is out now, available through all good booksellers.