Author of “Frankenstein's Mother” from ISSUE 02, and her thoughts on writing superpowers, musicality, and the magic of art-making.
When you are working on a piece, what inspirations do you draw from?
When I’m deep inside a new piece of work, I feel hyper-attuned to the world around me. Every song I hear, every article I read, every insect that flies into my hair, I wonder––how do you connect to the words tumbling about inside of me? Do you have a place, too, in the work being born? Most of my inspiration comes from my research. I, like all writers, I think, am a naturally very curious person. I constantly Google, pull books down from my shelves, call my father (who knows a good deal about just about everything) and ask questions. I love researching and taking notes, and then going back to those notes a few months later and seeing what still strikes me as interesting. Often it takes a while for an essay or story to brew within me, and then one new article I come across, or one interesting conversation will help the whole thing crystallize. I am learning to be patient as I fill my cup with curios and questions. They will all spill out eventually, and maybe then I’ll be able to make sense of the patterns that emerge from the spillage.
What craft elements are you most interested in/attached to within your writing?
I am fascinated by sentence structures and the musicality housed within language. I constantly try to modulate my sentence lengths and I am always listening to the music within the line––both the rhythm of it, and the sounds that the letters make. In addition to studying English and art in college, I was also classically trained in voice. My words are my primary instrument, now. I read every line I write out loud, testing the sound and the feel, listening deeply to the letters attempting to bring my ideas to life, allowing my musician’s sensibilities to help me sort through sound.
I am also deeply drawn to structure. My first book was a braid that wove together three stories––two made from historical fiction and one made from memoir and research. That braid was very intentional, as I was trying to enact the beautiful chaos of the piece of music about which my book centered. Now, in my essays and in my novel-in-progress, I try to bring that same intentionality to my work: What structures are best suited to holding these ideas? What kind of container makes sense?
In regards to your response regarding craft elements, you spoke about the relationship between words and sound. I definitely felt the music pulsing through your writing. What are some other authors/books that you feel create musicality well within their work?
This is such a fascinating question because writing can be musical in so many different ways. For example, when I'm reading translated works by Japanese authors Banana Yoshimoto or Meiko Kawakami, the musicality feels stripped down in an intentional way. Piano. Fermatas. Rests. When I read the undulating, crashing sentences of Italian author Elena Ferrante, I get a much busier, but just as beautiful, sound. Quickly climbing notes from violins. Cymbals. Timpani. Other authors that capture musicality in their prose that I admire include Maggie Nelson, Ling Ma, Ruth Ozeki, Dani Shapiro, Louise Erdrich, Willa Cather, Jacqueline Woodson, Toni Morrison, and W.G. Sebald. I love all of those authors so, so much.
Who (or what) are some of your writing obsessions, and why?
I am obsessed with writing about other art forms. While I do sing and paint, and I even acted in musicals all through high school, I identify myself most solidly as a writer. I feel most comfortable with words. But I am fascinated with the way people can feel inspiration––like me––and turn that into a song, or become someone else on a stage––things I do not do. I think I am so obsessed with the magic and the divine of art-making that I want to try to understand it from all angles. Obviously, we are all different and have our own ways of making art, which is exactly how it should be. But I love to crawl inside others’ minds and try to imagine what it would be like to make something from their perspective and with their unique gifts.
Speaking of art, when you sit down to paint, what happens in your mind, and how is that process similar or dissimilar to sitting down to write?
When I sit down to paint, I feel, in some ways, a bit freer than I do when writing. I can push paint across the canvas or paper, but I won't know what it truly looks like until it dries. In that way, the paint feels like an equivalent and outside partner in my process. There is less that I can control. Sometimes––especially on tough writing days––it can feel like it's just me, me, me. And sometimes I get sick of me! But with both painting and writing there can be those glorious moments when it feels like I'm simply channeling something else––I'm constantly chasing that feeling in both mediums.
Another interesting part of the process for both comes with the idea of making changes. It is much easier for me to make changes in my writing. I'm much less sentimental about it. Perhaps because I've been at it for longer and have had to make some very big and at times painful cuts in my manuscripts, stories, and essays. When I return to an in-progress painting, I sometimes find I am very nervous to make changes because once I paint over something, I know I can never exactly recreate what was there before.
Also you occasionally sell your artwork, is that right?
Yes, I sometimes sell small collections of my work online on my website, kaiapreus.com, or on my Instagram @kaiapreus. Please feel empowered to check out my pages!
What are some ways in which you remain productive/find time to be a writer?
Finding time to be a writer has changed for me over the years. Getting my MFA trained me very well to sit down and write because I had no choice but to produce. Now, I can write anywhere, at any time, with any sort of noise in the background, which I have come to see as a superpower. For me, a lot of my ability to do this outside of graduate school was linked to letting go of what I thought it should look like “to be a writer.” When I was teaching high school English full-time for five years, I did not have the time or bandwidth to sit at a coffee shop and write for hours on the weekends. I was sleeping, shopping for groceries, watching TV––doing all those things I needed to do to keep being a human. The thought of sitting down to work on my book for an afternoon stressed me out. So I didn’t usually do that. Instead, I started carving out small slices of time to write. I wrote while my students wrote in class. When I got home after school I would write for an hour before walking my dog and having dinner.
When I nannied for a year, I would search for toads with two eight-year-old boys in the morning, come home and take a nap, and then write for a couple of hours. Now, I teach and coach writing part-time at two universities and have a lot more time to write. Long stretches of time still intimidate me, so I often sit down with the thought that I’ll just write for fifteen minutes. Often that fifteen minutes stretches into an hour or two, but sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it stays fifteen minutes. That’s okay for me and where I’m at in my life right now.
I have found, though, that I have to write. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad writing, but if I’m writing, I’m the best version of myself. If I go a few days or a week without writing, I find that I tend to get crabby. I take out my frustrations with myself on those close to me. So, I really try to write as often as I can.
What are some ways in which you get through a block in your creative work?
The timer! I set a timer for fifteen minutes and tell myself that it’s okay if it’s absolute trash and I never look at it again. For me, the hardest part is getting going.
How do you navigate the experience of submissions/rejections/acceptances?
My ability to navigate the submissions/rejections/acceptances game has come with time. The first time I submitted a short story and got rejected I cried for hours. Now, I have had hundreds and hundreds of rejections and when I open those emails, I feel almost nothing, which makes me proud of myself. There was a time when I was submitting very aggressively and I got at least one rejection a day. That was awesome for me, because it trained me to not care so much, and to not take it personally. During that period, I also got three or four acceptances, which certainly helped balance things out. Rejection, or failure, used to scare me, but it doesn’t anymore.
When I submit something, the worst thing the editors can say to me is “No,” and I can handle that. Nothing else about my life will change from that no. I’ll still have my husband and my dog and long walks in the park and beautiful books to read. Now I see each rejection as evidence that I’m trying. I’m going for things. I’m taking my work seriously, but I’m not taking myself too seriously.
Regarding your piece in Issue 02, "Frankenstein's Mother," what does it mean for/to you?
I am so honored and excited that my story “Frankenstein’s Mother” is appearing in Issue 02 of The Champagne Room. I admire the editors’ vision of this journal so much, and it’s a real treat to have this essay appear in these pages. It is one of the more personal essays I’ve written, and it is also the first essay to be published that is part of a larger project I’m working on, which is a series of essays related to Halloween. When I first started writing about Halloween, I thought it would be just black cats and jack-o’lanterns, but I’ve discovered that these essays have ballooned into complex pieces that often highlight interesting intersections between history, environmentalism, psychology, and the personal.
Do you have any recent publications and/or projects?
I would love to highlight my book “progeny,” as Mary Shelley would say. The War Requiem is available for purchase here: http://www.essaypress.org/preus/.
Is there anything else you would like to share with other writers?
If you have that deep feeling that you want to write, you are meant to write. Don’t worry about if it’s good or not, or if others will publish it or not. We are here on this earth for such a brief second and spending time writing with oneself can be such a balm and joy. Don’t let the extraneous noise keep you from simply putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Being a writer is a gift. Don’t waste it. The world needs your creativity.
Kaia Preus is an artist and writer based in Minneapolis. She received her MFA from Hollins University and was a 2019 Author Fellow through the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. Her first book, The War Requiem (Essay Press), was a finalist for the 2021 Minnesota Book Award and won the 2018 Essay Press and University of Washington Bothell MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics Book Contest. Her work has appeared in The Briar Cliff Review, The Drum, Pleiades, and elsewhere. She teaches writing at Augsburg University and the Loft Literary Center in downtown Minneapolis. She is also the Graduate School and Personal Statement Writing Coach at St. Olaf College. Kaia is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel.