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Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Interview with Kathryn Burak, author of Emily's Dress and Other Missing Things

We are so lucky to have Kathryn 'Kate' Burak, author of Emily's Dress and Other Missing Things, with us to answer a few questions about mothering and writing.  Her Young Adult novel is set to come out this fall.  She has also been gracious enough to share her essay about her journey as a writer.

Tell us about your book.

Emily's Dress and Other Missing Things is  a contemporary, realistic book with a mystery and a good dose of romance.  In my story, the main character, Claire, goes looking for help in understanding her mother's suicide in the poems of Emily Dickinson--and at Dickinson's house, in Amherst, Massachusetts.  Why not?  Dickinson certainly wrote about death often enough.  But then Claire accidentally steals Emily Dickinson's dress, and can't stop thinking about how her best friend just sort of disappeared off the face of the planet.  Somehow these two elements merge into the story that comes attached to Claire's teaching assistant, Tate, who has been reading all her writing and knows more about her than she wants him to.  (At first.)

What's next for you?

With the last three years behind me, I find it no easier to balance being a mom and being a writer.  There are only 24 hours in a day and there's always guilt--I could wake up three hours earlier, cook more, clean (sometimes!).  But what is easier for me is embracing my identity as a writer.  I say, "My part-time job is writing, and so I must write." I also teach full time, and if I have to grade papers or prepare for class, I do that.  Nowadays, I don't feel as guilty about my "other" job as a writer.  I know publishing makes me feel a little more "legit," but aspiring mom/writers shouldn't let not publishing yet get in their way.  Writing is your "other" job. 

Thanks, Kathryn!  I hope you enjoy Kathryn's below essay as much as I did.  We all need to hear these stories as mother-writers!

Mom Writes First Novel by Kathryn Burak

Early that summer, it hit me: I woke up one morning in a bed filled with regrets, with the awful feeling that I might not ever do the things I wanted to do in my life. It was a combination of fear and something else. . .I wasn't sure what. It made me want to sleep.

So I did. I slept for fourteen hours one day. And twelve the next. This went on for about a week. And then I started to feel something else, something more definable and more definite than fatigue.
It was adrenaline.  The next week, I bought a laptop and started to write a novel.

For weeks I got up at 4 am and wrote for 8-10 hours a day, taking half-hour breaks to do the work I was supposed to do that summer, Cleaning The Basement.  Somewhere in the middle of July, I found this box in the basement that made me actually feel ill. It was my old writing--dot-matrix printed pages (that's how old it was) of stories. One box had a copy of a novel I started when I was pregnant with Yoshi--seventeen years before. The manuscript was covered with yellow post-it notes, comments on the draft made by a literary agent who had read my short stories and liked them and had tried to coax a novel out of me. I remembered the story and the notes, but I didn't remember the letter I got from her two years after I sent her the draft.

May 19, 1994
Dear Kate Burak,
I was going through my follow up folder and I realized I had never heard back from you and it occurred to me that you might not have received my message. So this is just to say that I very much enjoyed your stories and your novel and would welcome the opportunity to either read more or hear from you.

I sat down, clutching that letter. The basement was wet and warm and mildewy. I felt sick to my stomach about this letter I never answered. All I could think of was how easy it was, when I was younger, to let things drift away.

At that moment, regret seemed insufficient. The word I needed was deeper, with more of a bellow to it, something that was connected to the notion of gone and lost forever. Something closer to grief.

I took the box upstairs.

My kids were out of camp that week, lying around in those summer, late-afternoon stupors. I showed them my treasure box, and read a little from the novel-in-progress that I worked on while I was waiting to become a mother.

I suppose it's always this way when your mother tells you about how she spent her time before you came to live at the center of her life: it's the story of a stranger--improbable as a world without stars.

You gave all this up for us?  They were sad for me, and at that moment I was sad for me too, but it was also important to tell them this--because of all the things I could say to children about the time they spend on earth, this is the most important--If you are lucky, you get to make choices.

I was lucky.  I chose to make Halloween costumes, and birthday cakes that looked like Pirate ships. I chose to direct school plays and teach poetry workshops. I started a film club and we made great films. I was part of a wonderful group of people who sold pizza for a year and earned enough money to build a labyrinth at my kids' school. I had the pleasure of knowing all their classmates, and sharing with those kids my love of words, and most of all, watching all of them grow up together. It was a great pleasure. It was an enormous pleasure.

I think I chose well. And most significantly, I had the opportunity to choose. And nothing about that is sad.  But it was also important to tell them every choice is a trade. Something for something else.

And that morning earlier that summer when I woke up in bed with all my regrets I was thinking about that, too--of the conscious decisions you make and how they tally up, how they are the sum of your days.

The next day I got up at 4 and wrote for 8 hours. I was, in fact, having the time of my life.  At the end of this summer, I had a book, one I liked. Maybe I could publish this book--who knows? I pulled out the letter from 1994 and googled the agent's name. I assumed she'd gotten really successful since she had her own agency, now. I wrote her an email that started, "Many years ago. . . " And I sent her my novel.

The grief I felt that day in July really did start to shrink. In fact, it was nearly gone. It didn't matter that she would probably never respond to my email, that she might even think I was some kind of loser.

But, there's a little magic to the story. I contacted other agents who offered to represent me, and when I was about to take an offer, I heard from the agent from the past. She was, maybe, interested. How was that possible?

On October 8, 2009, I was digging in my sock drawer for something to wear, and I came up with a little muslin doll I made for Yoshi when she was born. It is a little replica of Emily Dickinson. I embroidered very large eyes and a small Gioconda smile.

Finding this doll was very meaningful since Emily Dickinson is in my new novel and I had been spending many days with her in my head and sometimes out of my head, in the room with me, and the two of us in the woods with a black bear. Elbow deep in socks, holding this little hand-made Emily Dickinson, I had an epiphany.

You can't give up something you truly are. It doesn't just go away.

In some part of my consciousness, I had not ever really set everything adrift. For years the rice was cooking--in a very dormant way--but still, slowly cooking.  And later that very day, fifteen years after she sent me a letter I did not answer, the agent from my past agreed to be my literary agent. After all.

So here's my six word memoir, dated October 8, 2009.

Letter--after fifteen years--finally answered.


  1. Kate- I love this statement:

    'You can't give up something you truly are. It doesn't just go away.'

    I'm going to hold onto that on the days I try convincing myself to put writing in a box and forget about trying anymore.

  2. Wonderful essay, Kate, and so true. I have three children and a part time job, and I wrote in stolen moments and late at night for years, until I finally sold my first novel. But if I hadn't, I'd still be writing - because it just makes me happy. As you put it, it is part of who I am. I can't wait to read Emily's Dress and Other Missing Things!

  3. Oh, Kate! I never knew this magical part of your story. You know how I feel about EMILY'S DRESS. So happy to see how all of this unfolded for you. xo

  4. I love this Kate! I can totally relate to the years of doing wonderful things that I loved, but not actually chasing my dreams. I remember the day I read one of my daughter's creative writing assignments (that was very good) and thought, "Maybe she'll be the one to be a writer and live my dream." It was almost a year later that I decided that I should at least try.

  5. Kate, this is fabulous and I complete relate. And I was also moved by this line: 'You can't give up something you truly are. It doesn't just go away.' Can't wait to read your book!

  6. Kate, this is such an inspiring story, especially as it reminds me how sometimes, we're not ready for an opportunity. You didn't write back to that agent in 1994 because something told you it wasn't the right time. But I'm so glad the writing impulse never left you and thrilled that Emily's Dress is soon to be on shelves!

  7. What an inspirational story - so many positives to hang onto on the days when it seems all you do is change nappies and cook meals that aren't appreciated. Thank you for this - much needed encouragement today! Congratulations on living your dream.

  8. I have been looking forward to your book anyway--and after reading this?! LOVE this post, Kathryn! Poignant and honest. Lovely. Thanks for sharing...

  9. Thanks to Caroline, I found this piece. I am sharing with so many young moms I know because this is me as my younger self, without the epiphany of finding a box of my writing complete with a professional critique, and a little Emily Dickinson doll!

    I always knew I wanted to write and always knew I'd never give it up. Yes, it doesn't ever go away. But sometimes it waits for the kids to grow up a bit before the "real" job turns into that of a writer.

  10. I honor all you moms who are writing now while you are in the midst of the "triage moments." Clare Vanderpool, Newberry Winner for Moon Over Manifest wrote in tiny spurts between raising 4 children. There are a lot of you writing right now.

  11. Your story just gave me chills! It's truly incredible. I've been writing all through the Mommy'ing for 20 years. It's tough, but it's also very true that we can't ignore what is deep inside and a part of us. (I'm here by way of Caroline Rose!)