Interview with Daphne Kalotay as told to Gilmore Tamny. Photo by Sasha Pedro
Daphne Kalotay is a fiction writer based in Somerville, Massachusetts. Her collection Calamity and Other Stories was shortlisted for the 2005 Story Prize, and her 2011 novel Russian Winter won that year’s Writers’ League of Texas Fiction Prize. Her most recent novel, Sight Reading, was the winner of the 2014 New England Society Book Award in Fiction. She is a professor at Princeton University.
How long have you lived in Somerville?
I moved here in 2013, after fifteen years on the other side of the river. But I spent a lot of time in Davis Square in the early 1990’s—so I still sometimes have to mentally superimpose the reality of the new Somerville over my memories of the old one. That said, I live right on the edge of Somerville, in a neighborhood that is rapidly changing, so I am part of that gentrification.
Any chance of a novel or short story set in Somerville?
Yes, I actually just finished a first draft of a story set here. I want to write about the tension between the old and new in a way that’s nuanced rather than over-simplified.
Do you think having both a U.S. and Canadian background has affected your writing at all?
Yes, in that my foundation as a reader was based on short stories rather than novels because we always had the new Canadian books in our house, which in the eighties and nineties were often story collections by Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro, not to mention Margaret Atwood and others. I ended up writing my doctoral dissertation on Mavis Gallant after being shocked when an English professor at BU told me he had never heard of her.
What have been the resources as an artist in Somerville you’ve found most useful? What do you like most about the community of writers in Somerville?
For years I wanted to live here simply because this was where I came to see music and Open Studios, and all the writers and artists I knew lived here or had their studios here. By the time I moved here, some of my writer friends were having to move further out—but there’s still a really supportive writing community, and events like Adult Storytime at Aeronaut or shows at the Armory keep things vibrant. Also, this past year I applied for an Artist Fellowship from the Somerville Arts Council, which was a huge help, because, among other necessities, my printer died and I had to buy a new one.
How does being a teacher/professor inform your writing or your writing process?
I love teaching because it means I am continuously learning—from my students, from my colleagues, and from all the reading I assign for my classes. I also try to do some of the writing assignments I give my students, so that I keep producing even during the semester.
How do you deal with the self-doubt of the artistic process? Where do you find the most inspiration?
I think self-doubt is natural and probably healthy. As for inspiration, there’s a wonderful documentary, “Man on Wire,” about Philippe Petit, who once walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers at 1350 feet in the air. In the documentary you learn that he dreamed of doing that from the moment he learned the towers had been planned, years before they had even been built. In other words, he had a vision, and practiced, and kept practicing, and made a plan, and executed it, even though he had to overcome not just gravity or fear but security guards and the law, in order to somehow get a wire slung between the two buildings and walk across it multiple times. If you’ve ever seen footage of him walking up there as if it’s the most natural thing, you’ll get a sense of what it means to dream and prepare and train until you can do something that seems impossible. So, any time I’m finding writing difficult, I think of what Petit was able to accomplish and tell myself that if he could do that, I can do this, which is certainly easier—or at least less potentially deadly.
What’s the experience of being this year’s One City One Story?
I’m really excited for the event on October 28th, because it’s like a big book club discussion. Also, the Boston Book Festival does an amazing job of translating the story into multiple languages, which means ideally the story can reach an audience that might otherwise not read it. So I’m hoping to connect with readers I wouldn’t otherwise meet.
Tell us a bit about the charrettes you’ve started and encouraging others to start as well.
The charrettes are informal meetings where a group of women writers come together to discuss a specific, pre-arranged craft topic, such as dialogue issues or narrative distance, things like that. The idea is to trouble-shoot, in a way, by discussing the technical challenges and hearing from different points of view. We are fiction writers, poets, memoirists, and essayists, which means we’re always hearing new perspectives and learning from each other.
I know you’ve taken a good deal of language classes and speak French, Italian and Spanish. How do you find reading and learning other languages helps with your writing?
Really I can only muddle my way through French and am worse in Italian. But I think language study always benefits a writer, because it broadens your understanding of things like syntax, rhythm, and metaphor. I remember reading a Nabokov novel where he described someone punched getting a black eye and called it “black-buttered”—which sounds like a great new metaphor but is really a translation of what the French call “un oeil au beurre noir.”
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a short story collection, some of which—like the One City One Story piece—are my attempts to make some kind of sense out of my family’s experience of the Holocaust.