A Conversation with Kevin Haworth

One pleasure of the online world is the seemingly endless opportunity it provides to “meet” other writers and learn about their excellent work. Not long ago I made the virtual acquaintance of Kevin Haworth, who recently won the Samuel Goldberg & Sons Foundation Prize for Jewish Fiction by Emerging Writers for his debut novel, The Discontinuity of Small Things (Quality Words in Print, 2005). For those who aren’t familiar with this major award, it’s administered by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. Past winners include Nathan Englander, Simone Zelitch, Peter Orner, Gary Shteyngart, Lara Vapnyar, and Nancy Reisman.

And for those who aren’t familiar with Haworth’s novel, it’s a remarkable read. Set primarily in Denmark during World War II, the novel follows several seemingly unrelated characters as their lives change–little by little–as a series of “small things” gradually takes place under Denmark’s occupation by Nazi Germany. Although the novel itself is discontinuous (following disparate characters and shifting in time; I don’t always appreciate such nonlinearity), in this case it all works, and Haworth skillfully weaves the various threads together. This is an affecting and effective novel; it lingers long after the last page.

Born in Brooklyn in 1971, Kevin Haworth spent most of his childhood in Summitville, NY. He graduated with honors from Vassar College in 1992; it was at Vassar that he began writing fiction, studying with novelist Thomas Mallon. After graduation, he moved to Israel to participate in Sherut La’am (Service to the People), a year-long volunteer program.

In 1995 Haworth received a teaching fellowship to Arizona State University, where he earned an M.F.A. in Fiction Writing. While there, he taught fiction workshops and published his first story, “The Story of Jonah and the Whale,” which won the Permafrost Fiction Prize. (His second published story, “The Promised Land,” won the David Dornstein Memorial Creative Writing Contest in 1998.) He also began work on his novel, The Discontinuity of Small Things.

In 1997 Haworth moved to Philadelphia, where his wife was attending rabbinical school. During two month-long residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, in 1999 and in 2001, Haworth worked as a carpenter and wrote long sections of his novel. He currently lives in Athens, Ohio, and teaches writing and literature at Ohio University. He is married to Rabbi Danielle Leshaw and has two children. Recently he responded to a series of my questions:

Erika Dreifus: Kevin, I’ve already congratulated you in our correspondence, but allow me to publicly acknowledge a recent honor–your receipt of the Samuel Goldberg & Sons Foundation Prize for Jewish Fiction by Emerging Writers for your debut novel, The Discontinuity of Small Things. How did you learn about this competition, and how did your novel come to be submitted for consideration?

Kevin Haworth: Full credit goes to my editor, Holly Gruber, who is very attentive to award competitions and submitted the book on my behalf. When you publish with a small press, literary prizes are an important way to get noticed. Of course, winning a major award is the result that everyone hopes for–but even smaller prizes can generate really welcome publicity.

ED: How did you find out you’d won the award? What was your reaction? What’s changed for you since the award was announced?

KH: There’s an instant legitimacy that comes with winning a national literary prize. Here at Ohio University, it has certainly attracted some notice and I hope that will develop on a larger scale as the news spreads. But most importantly, it lends that elusive concept–confidence–that might sustain a writer through the sine curve of a long career. As for how I heard–Holly, my editor, buried it in the back end of a phone call for maximum dramatic effect. I made her say it three times before I would let her get off the phone.

ED: Tell us how you came to write The Discontinuity of Small Things.

KH: It came directly out of my MFA program. In a class taught by the novelist Melissa Pritchard, we were ‘encouraged’–let’s say forced–to come up with a different idea for a novel each week, complete with synopsis and three-page sample. To me, this is a story about how productive waste can be for a writer. Ten weeks/ten ideas. Nine went nowhere. One led to this.

ED: This is an historical novel, set primarily in Denmark during World War II. Tell us a little about your research process.

KH: I used a number of different methods, but photographs were probably the most important. A good photograph provides you with wonderful details and an ambiguous narrative. That is a useful starting point for a writer. It supplies you with raw material, some tension, and lots of room to work. Many of the moments in the book emerged from photographs, both period ones and others that my wife took when we traveled to Denmark and Sweden to research the book about halfway through the writing process.

I also used historical accounts and discussions with people I met in Denmark, but less than one might think. For one thing, I really don’t like talking to strangers. I’m just too shy for it. Second, when you write an historical novel, you really have to be wary of the history. Georg Lukacs writes in The Historical Novel, a classic book of criticism on the subject, that important events can exert an unhealthy gravity over your work. You need to be entirely familiar with the history and context, and then you need to be willing to depart from it. Only then can you write a book that is surprising.

ED: This novel was published by Quality Words in Print. Tell us how the “match” between you and your novel and the publisher developed.

KH: I liked QWIP’s Web site. What I mean is: the face that QWIP presents to the world is quiet and lovely. I suspected those qualities would translate to the way that the press approached its books. So I sent some sample pages. The relationship developed from there. There was certainly no guarantee that they would appreciate the book–like everyone else, QWIP is awash in submissions–but I recognized an aesthetic kinship, and that helped. There are so many books in the world, and so many styles, that looking for a ‘match,’ as you say, does increase the chances of success.

ED: I read in the Cleveland Jewish News that you spent eight years working on this novel. How did you sustain momentum (and interest!) over all that time? What were some of the high (and low) points?

KH: There’s no need for parentheses. The low points came regularly and with quite a bit of noise. At times, the more I wrote the harder it became. All those words–and I still didn’t know if it would ever come together. When I first started sending the book out, it was almost out of desperation–to force the book into a clearer stage of success or failure.

Two elements sustained me during that time. One, I was convinced that the book mattered. Much of that is related to the inherent importance of the Holocaust and the need to explore it. But I think every writer needs to believe that there is something *big* about the story he or she is struggling to tell.

Second, I felt I had stumbled upon a unique stylistic approach. I often approached it in a detached way, like a science experiment. Let’s push the style, keep changing the variables, and see what happens. I love revision, the constant pursuit of a sentence that is slightly better than the previous version. I’m still doing it, by the way. You should see how many times I’ve rewritten this interview.

In the long run, it’s interesting how quickly one’s perspective can change. I was starting to feel quite behind the curve. (You’re 34! No book yet?) Now everyone’s telling me I’m a young writer again.

ED: The Goldberg Prize includes, in addition to a cash award, a month’s residency at the Ledig House International Writers’ Colony. You’ve spent some time in artist communities before. How did your past residency experience(s) contribute to your work on this novel, and what are you planning to work on while you’re at Ledig House?

KH: My two residencies at the Vermont Studio Center were absolutely necessary. For me, it comes down to mental and physical space. I re-made my studio in Vermont in the image of my novel–at one point, I copied nearly the whole book onto index cards and put them up on the wall. I was influenced by the visual artists who make up the majority of residents at VSC; unlike writers, they can see their whole work at once, look at it from different angles, see how individual brushstrokes affect the whole. So I did that. That was a key step in moving from a collection of sentences to a cohesive book.

The mental space is just as valuable. Separated from your everyday life, you simply spend more time with your work. Problems that seemed insurmountable at nine in the morning can be solved at five in the afternoon, when you’re just walking around and thinking.

ED: Anything else you want to tell us? (reading dates, future projects, conferences, etc.)

KH: I’m still putting together my fall schedule, but it looks like it will include some visits to universities, a couple of events on behalf of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, and some appearances at Jewish book fairs. Of course, if your readers have any terrific ideas, I’d be glad to hear them. [Editor’s Note: Kevin will also be attending Jewish Book Week in London in February 2007.]

Like many writers, I’m reluctant to talk about my work-in-progress. But the book, now published, is an object. It has its own life, and I really enjoy narrating the story of that life.

ED: Thank you, Kevin!

(c) Copyright 2006 by Erika Dreifus

Note: You can find/learn more about Kevin Haworth’s award-winning novel here. And because this is an ethical issue discussed on several blogs lately, please know that there is NO financial benefit to The Practicing Writer for any purchase through that link.

(Adapted from a version published in The Practicing Writer, August 2006)

More MFA News

Just found out about another new low-residency MFA program. Hamline University’s low-residency MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults will hold its first residency in January, 2007. Looks like I have another program to add to the directory in our primer.

Congratulations, Andy Furman

I love hearing good news about my writer friends. Then I want to spread the word. So lately I’ve been pestering Andrew Furman for the official announcement of his recent “Researcher of the Year” award (Creative and Scholarly Category) from Florida Atlantic University.

Andy is both a skilled literary critic and a talented novelist. Sanford Pinsker nicely discusses both areas of accomplishment here.

And all you writing and/or literature teachers (and students) out there should definitely read Andy’s Poets & Writers “Teachers Lounge” article on “Reading and Writing in the MFA Program, and Beyond.”

Writers Who Smoke

Like many others, I was very saddened yesterday to learn about Dana Reeve’s death. There’s a lot behind my reaction, and I’m not going to delve into it all. But part of it is definitely related to the fact that I’ve lost a loved one to this disease, and I know how terribly its victims suffer, however bravely.

Since my aunt’s illness–she died almost exactly ten years ago–I’ve been a rabid anti-smoker. Yes, it’s true that even non-smokers (like Dana Reeve) are diagnosed with this cancer every year. But the truth remains that the vast majority of lung cancer cases (80%-90%) are among smokers. Smoking is the single most preventable risk factor for the disease. And of the non-smokers who fall victim to it, experts agree that secondary smoke inhalation (Dana Reeve’s work as a singer brought her into many smoke-suffused environments) may well be a cause.

At my MFA program, I earned something of a reputation for both pleading with others not to smoke, and for staying away from the clusters of “smoking writers” gathered in bars and elsewhere. Frankly, this behavior isolated me from a lot of conversations and socializing. Good. Having watched my aunt prepare to leave her three then-twentysomething children–and now watching all her grandchildren grow up without their grandmother–I was also offended by the hypocrisy of the writers who would wax eloquent to (childless) me about how much their children mattered to them and the joys of parenting. I often wanted to tell them: “If you want to see your children grow up–and spare them what my cousins went through tending their mother on her deathbed–put out that damn cigarette.”

In Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees (an absolutely wonderful book about writing and publishing), we read that “the only place you’re likely to find more alcoholics than an AA meeting is a writing program.” She may be joking, but it’s also highly probable, judging merely from the drinking that also went on in my MFA program. But I wonder about lung cancer cases among writers, too. I can’t believe that writers are not overrepresented here. And now that we’re realizing that secondary smoke can be so harmful, I have to wonder about lung cancer cases among those writers live with, too.

I can’t make others quit smoking (I’ve tried, and in one case am still trying, if in a less nagging manner), but I can try to protect myself from their secondary smoke.

When I began attending the annual conferences of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), I was stunned by how pervasive the smoking was. I could barely spend more than five minutes in one of the conference hotel bars or restaurants without becoming nauseated.

Last year, the conference was held in Vancouver, and the smokers had to take it outside. While I’m skipping this year’s conference, I’m truly happy to know that it’s taking place in Austin, Texas, which recently enacted a ban on smoking in public places as well.

I hope AWP will continue to hold its conferences in cities that look out for the health of their citizens and tourists. Yes, the writers who smoke may be inconvenienced a bit. I wish the audiences who went to hear Dana Reeve sing had been similarly inconvenienced.

Low-Residency MFA-In-Progress

I’ve stumbled on some information for a proposed new low-residency MFA program at Ashland University in Ashland, OH. Looks like they’re hoping to get off the ground in 2007, with a program designed for writers of poetry and nonfiction. If you want to read the extensive proposal (apparently written for an Ashland University audience), click here. It’s a PDF document.