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An Interview with Helene Kiser

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Helene Kiser is the author of Topography (Linear Arts Books, 1998). Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in dozens of literary magazines and anthologies (Clockhouse, Hawaii Review, Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, Borderlands, Connecticut River Review, Sycamore Review, Paterson Literary Review, Soundings East, The Cape Rock, etc) and been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. She’s had recent essays related to her memoir appear in Insider, Hippocampus, Next Avenue, The Keepthings, Brevity, and HuffPost—which was picked up on Yahoo! News and garnered more than a million views in just a couple of days. Apparently, grief is a popular subject if not a whole lotta fun to live with!

What inspired you to start writing this book?

My husband received a surprise terminal cancer diagnosis and, despite having no risk factors and being young and in excellent health, he died just five months later. The only way I could process what happened was to write it down. The more I wrote, the more I realized it was a story worth telling for others, not just myself and our children. We had a remarkable marriage and a happy family; our story explores larger questions of how the medical establishment fails us as a society, as well as what makes a joyful union and a life worth living.

Tell us the story of your book’s current title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

My husband was also a writer. His blog was titled “One Lucky Man,” taken from this story:

Worried that their son was too optimistic, the parents of a little boy took him to a psychiatrist. Trying to dampen the boy’s spirits, the psychiatrist showed him into a room piled high with nothing but horse manure. Yet instead of displaying distaste, the little boy clambered to the top of the pile, dropped to all fours, and began digging.

“What do you think you’re doing?” the psychiatrist asked.

“With all this manure,” the little boy replied, beaming, “there must be a pony in here somewhere.”

He always, even at the end, believed he’d had a very fortunate life. It’s a good working title for me, to remember his character and bring him to life on the page.

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

The book includes a number of lyrics from certain songs. But for a soundtrack, I’d say Mike Doughty’s catalog on continual repeat.

What books are you reading (for research or comfort) as you continue the writing process?

I read voraciously, fiction and nonfiction both. I’ve read (or have on my to-be-read list) as many memoirs as I can find that deal with death, grief, trauma, etc. I’m also interested in hybrid memoirs of all stripes. Allison Williams’ Seven Drafts and Jane Allison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative are on my desk close at hand.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

I’m a professional editor and have worked with clients from individuals to mom & pop shops to Fortune 500 companies. I know how to diagram sentences and I do it for fun. The weirdest job I ever had was in the Matrix hair factory, manually feeling packets of sample shampoo 12 hours a day to make sure they didn’t leak before they were mailed out. I was an actor in one of the early Peloton commercials in 2014 but have never seen the video!

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

I was an early reader and wrote my own stories almost as soon as I could hold a crayon. I think I was probably born a language person. I have too many influences to name. I do keep a commonplace book full of gorgeous sentences I’ve loved and that inspire me.

Where is your favorite place to write?

Much of my composition happens in my head as I walk several miles each day. I type at my standing desk, but write in my head block after block.

Do you have any writing rituals?

My house is unbelievably clean! Seriously, I am a good avoider, and cleaning serves to help me avoid in a productive way, while also working out tricky phrasing or scenes in my head.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

I hope my readers will feel they know my husband and our marriage/family intimately, so his loss in particular moves them. But I also hope to provide a true experience of love and grief as seen through my eyes, the keeper of our collective memories and life experiences.

Are you a writer, too? Submit your manuscript to Atmosphere Press.

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