profiles in linguistics: Katherine Towler

Katherine Towler


Who are we? Are we elements of our environment; the subways we ride on, the grit of bare earth, the chairs slipped under our office desks? Is our identity interconnected to the perceived bones of time? Maybe memory? How do my relationships affect who I consider to be elements of what I deem “me”? Am I multiples in transition? These are questions that prose writer Katherine Towler pursues in her work.

Towler actively disassembles the intricately woven experience of our everyday lives. She is here to remind us of these moments. Perhaps it is her experience as a photographer that makes us focus on the complicated yet so varyingly simple nature of the minutia of our lives. These types of life intimacies mold our motion through that which we experience in life. Towler, states, “I’m looking for something that goes beneath the surface to the more subtle challenges, confusions, ambivalences, and longings we all experience on a daily basis.” Settings and characters mutate and grow as Towler is able to gravitate us through a Trilogy of novels, Snow Island, Evening Ferry, and her most recent, Island Light in which we face aspects of time, identity, and human relationship. Her newest projects include a piece of young adult fiction and a non-fiction book.

1.) What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

When I was a girl, my sister, who is two years younger, used to complain that I never wanted to do anything but sit on the couch and read.  My strongest memories are those times when I could escape into other worlds, into silence, into my imagination.  I suppose in many ways this is still true.  The times of going off by myself – whether in my mind or in actuality – are the times that feed me most.  The desire to find stillness in the midst of noise and people was one of the first things that led me to writing.  Growing up in New York City made me perhaps more attuned to this need.  In the summers we spent a month on the Rhode Island shore.  There I reveled in my love for the ocean and sky and air, for changing weather, for being outdoors, for the rhythms of nature.  I continue to draw a lot of sustenance from hiking and bird watching, and snowshoeing in winter.  I live in New England now, where I’m lucky to spend time in beautiful and sometimes remote places.  These places are a source for my writing.

The books I read and loved as a child made me imagine myself as a writer.  There are so many books I adored when I was young – everything by A.A. Milne (I especially loved the poems) and the Nancy Drew books.  I read all of Madeleine L’Engle’s books and sent her a fan letter.  She wrote back, addressing my concern that I was a poor speller and that this might prevent me from becoming a writer.  The Diary of Anne Frank made an enduring impression and remains one of my favorite books.  Jane Eyre is another book I first read when I was 11 or 12 that continues to be a favorite.  As a teenager, I loved e.e. cummings and Robert Frost.  I read their poems over and over.

As we age, the books we love don’t always age well with us.  It can be crushing to go back to a book that made me swoon when I was a teenager or college student, and find that it doesn’t resonate anymore.  This is an occupational hazard of being a writer, though.  The more experienced you become as a writer, the more critically you read; the more critically you read, the greater chance there is that books you once cherished will fall by the wayside.  Cummings is one of those who has fallen by the wayside.  Frost is not.

2.) Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

This is a significant question for women writers because, for women of my generation at least, it was not always that easy to find mentors, and certainly not female ones.  I was fortunate to attend a private girls’ school for high school in New York City.  I had a wonderful English teacher who encouraged me to write and suggested, when I was a junior, that I might like Virginia Woolf.  I had never heard of Woolf.  I read To the Lighthouse and then read every other novel of Woolf’s I could find.  I took a course in women writers of the 19th and 20th century with that teacher and remember, in particular, reading Emily Dickinson.  I took creative writing as an elective as many times as they would let me sign up for it.

In college, I spent more time on photography than writing.  My photography teacher was very supportive and encouraging.  I worked with him mostly as an independent study student.  He was one of the teachers who helped me believe I could do it on my own, that I just had to carve out the time.  I had a couple of other writing teachers in college who were the first to suggest I seriously think about pursuing writing.

I wandered around after college and worked a variety of odd jobs.  I was a clerk in a jewelry store in Burlington, VT, where I worked in the bridal registry helping brides-to-be choose their china and crystal.  The year I lived in Burlington, a friend who was a writer and editor gave me the application to the MFA program at Johns Hopkins.  “I’m not going to get around to filling this out,” he said.  “Why don’t you?”  I was accepted.  I always felt that I was living out his dream, in a way, though it was my dream, too.  But going to graduate school felt like an accident of sorts, as much of my life did then.  Once I had borrowed all that money to pay for the degree, however, I was determined that I better make good on the investment and get published.  This took a while . . .  I worked with John Barth at Johns Hopkins and Stephen Dixon.  At the Bread Loaf School of English, where I got an MA in English literature, I worked with Robert Houston.  All of these teachers gave me encouragement and made me determined in different ways.

My most lasting mentors are probably found not in writers I’ve met personally, but in those I have met on the page – Willa Cather, Edna O’Brien, Eudora Welty, Marguerite Duras, Carson McCullers, Edith Wharton, Antonia White (to name just a few).

3.)    How has your own work changed over time and why?

I like to think – hope anyway – that my writing has improved.  I never stop trying to get better.  It’s the one thing that keeps me going, in fact – the passionate hope and desire that I will write something better than what I have just written, because finishing a book inevitably means confronting its shortcomings.  While you’re writing it, you’re immersed in that book’s world and mostly blissfully unaware of where it falls short.  But once it’s done, you have to see the thing as a whole, and to see what didn’t happen this time around.

I spent most of two decades working on a trilogy of novels.  Creating this series of interlocking stories (the books take place over a 50-year span) with their interlocking characters was a far greater challenge than I understood when I set out to do it.  Now that I have surfaced from this long project, I am working on a book of non-fiction and a young adult novel.  My process with these new projects feels freer to me.  It may be simply working in different voices and forms, or it may be not working within the confines of three connected books.  In any case, I’m enjoying composing in a looser way, simply writing down anything that comes to me in no set order, with no “plot.”  I’m interested to see where this new approach will take me and whether I can duplicate it in writing an adult novel.

4.) Can you describe how you have been influenced by different genres? I am specifically interested in your movement from poetry to fiction.

I began by writing poems when I was ten years old.  I wrote poetry all through high school and declared I would be a poet when I grew up.  When I returned to writing in earnest after graduating from college, I began writing prose, mostly short stories.  I went through a poetry writing binge about eight years ago, as a break of sorts between novels, but since then I haven’t been engaged with poetry, and I’ve written a number of essays.  But the time I have spent on poetry has, I think, made me attentive to language and rhythm.  There are rhythms in prose just as there are in poetry. Writing poetry has made me a slower prose writer (by which I mean it has made me a patient writer who doesn’t mind taking her time in a scene or a book).  I have worked on a fledgling collection of short stories for years.  I find the short story a very demanding, unforgiving form.  Short stories, like poems, are about the moment and require finding the heart of the moment, the revealing turn.  Writing in different forms has given me an appreciation for what they all have in common.  Good writing in any form depends on a fully realized voice, and entering the moment you are writing about, and paying attention to cadence and language, and digging beneath the surface.

5.) What are you plans for the future?

As I said above, I’m currently working on a non-fiction book.  Once I finish that and the young adult novel, I have a couple of adult novels in mind.  I’d also like to complete a collection of linked short stories.  I may go back to poetry one of these days.  I have many drafts of poems sitting in a drawer waiting to be rescued.

6.) What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

I was fortunate to come of age when I did, at the height of the women’s movement in the late sixties and early seventies.  We felt we could do anything.  In the years since then, there’s been an explosion of women writing in America – though I suppose there’s been an explosion of writing by men and women both.  There’s still a bias against women.  Women are less likely to get the major prizes, like the Pulitzer and the National Book Award.  Their work is more likely to be seen as dealing with “domestic” concerns and, hence, to be inherently deemed less risky/interesting/muscular/intellectual.  But women writers have done very well in recent decades in terms of finding a wide readership and, in some cases (God love them), making money.

7.) Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

I have by no means made a survey of women publishing today and admit I find it difficult to keep up with more than a fraction of the new work coming out.  But here’s a random list of writers whose work I have enjoyed.  Alison Bechdel, author of the graphic memoir Fun House, is brilliant, and I’m ready to read whatever she publishes next.  Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight was unforgettable.  I eagerly await the next collection of stories from Alice Munro.  Leslie Marmon Silko is another very interesting writer, whose Ceremony is a book that has stayed with me.  Gretel Ehrlich’s non-fiction is wonderful and full of surprises.

8.) If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

I consider myself primarily a prose writer.  I write about place and memory.  I’m interested in stories that are revealing of character, that are more about ordinary lives than extraordinary ones, that deal with people first and ideas second.  Identity is a theme that comes up in my work.  I’m especially interested in the middle ground of identity, when we experience ourselves to be neither clearly one thing or another.  I hate labels of all kinds.

9.) In a review of Snow Island, Donald M. Murray, columnist for The Boston Globe and author of My Twice-Lived Life states that “Towler’s characters are as complex and contradictory as those with whom we live our lives… A master of pacing, [she] accomplishes the higher art of bringing us to see the drama in the commonplace.” Do you believe that there is something to say about the complexity of the human persona and its relationship to time and pacing?

I was honored to have the late Donald Murray review my book.  He was a mentor to so many writers in New England and was so generous.  I’m not sure what to say about the relationship between humans and time, though I am certainly interested in exploring how people change over time – or don’t.  The first volume of my trilogy takes place in 1941-’43, the second in 1966-’65, and the third in 1990-’91.  A couple of the characters appear in all three books.  Though I don’t give a continuous narrative of 50 years in these characters’ lives, by reading all three books, you get the arc of their lives over this period.  I believe that change is possible, that people do evolve.  Time is a mystery.  We largely take the time we are given for granted, until we are forced to confront our own mortality.  My sense of time has changed in significant ways since I turned 50.  I see it as much more precious and try to value each day.  This is territory I attempted to explore in the trilogy through the story of Alice, who goes from being a 16-year-old in the first book to a grandmother in her early sixties in the third volume.

10.) The Providence Journal, in reference to your novel Evening Ferry, argues, “[Towler] imagines characters and an island life that feel remarkably real. Inner quandaries over love, sex, memories, dreams and codes of duty are rendered with a light but vivid elegance… by intertwining each era’s history and cultural shifts with the stories of individual islanders, Towler is creating a memorable regional trilogy.” Do you believe that the interpersonal intimacy that you capture in this work is universal? In other words, do aspects such as “love, sex, memories, dreams and codes of duty,” change with cultural shifts? Or do you believe these are universal themes outside of our linear concept of time?

Different cultures have different orientations to some of the things cited in this quote.  Dreams, for instance.  Some cultures today, and in the past, have been far more attuned to dreams than we are in 21st century America.  But I would say that the basic experiences of dreaming, and loving, and remembering are common to human beings across time and cultures.  Years ago I taught a Dickens novel to ninth graders.  They complained that they couldn’t relate to the book because it was “old-fashioned,” and the people and lives in it were so different from theirs.  I argued that they were only looking at the surface.  Has the experience of falling in love changed since 1850?  Or since Sappho wrote about it in the fragments of her poems that have come down to us?  When I want to be reminded of what it means to feel that passion and wonder, I still take Sappho off the shelf.

11.) You write in your personal blog, “Drama for the sake of drama alone is meaningless.  It’s only when an exploration of the tough situations we all face is linked to a larger canvas – the basic stuff of human life – that it resonates.  If you look carefully in that monochrome, you’ll see a hint of color.” How do you capture these reductive concepts and connect them to larger, more universal issues of humanity? Do you believe this technique to embrace more readers, alienate them, or both?

In this quote, the monochromes I’m referring to are photographs.  I’m making a connection between my love for monochromatic images and my writing style.  Monochromes in photography offer a different experience, allowing the viewer to see more detail than a vibrant color image full of high contrast and drama.  I like these photographs because I feel they allow me to see to the heart of the image.  The drama is still present, but it’s quieter, more muted.  Monochromes ask the viewer to enter the frame, to be more reflective.

Though I have made a connection between these sorts of images and my writing style, I wouldn’t describe my writing as monochromatic, and I don’t think the concept I’m describing here is reductive.  On the contrary, I’m making an argument for writing that opens up to larger questions and themes, that is not tied to drama or plot alone.  Many contemporary novels grab the reader by the throat in the opening pages through an account of some extreme loss or trauma.  The story rests on plot and drama more than it does on carefully crafted characters and an exploration of what we all face in our daily lives.  While loss and trauma really do happen to people, and writing about such events is certainly legitimate, I am saying that these sorts of stories are of less interest to me as a reader and writer.  I can get such stories from the newspaper.  I’m looking for something that goes beneath the surface to the more subtle challenges, confusions, ambivalences, and longings we all experience on a daily basis.  Certainly plot and drama occur in my books, and my characters experience plenty of loss.  I attempt, nonetheless, to locate my stories first in setting and character, rather than plot, and to allow the broad canvas of these elements to lead the story.

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