03/31/2014 05:31 pm ET Updated May 31, 2014

Reasons to Be Happy: Interview With Katrina Kittle

Katrina Kittle is the author of four books for adults -- Traveling Light, Two Truths and a Lie, The Kindness of Strangers, and The Blessings of the Animals -- and one novel for tweens, Reasons to Be Happy. The Kindness of Strangers was the winner of the 2006 Great Lakes Book Award for Fiction. The Blessings of the Animals was an Indie Next pick and chosen by the Women's National Book Association as one of ten Great Group Reads for National Book Group Month (October 2010). Kittle teaches creative writing workshops from the third grade to retirement communities, and is currently teaching at Word's Worth Writing Center in Dayton, OH.

Loren Kleinman (LK): You were a John E. Nance Writer-in-Residence at The Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio in October 2013. What was that like? Talk about how you snagged that opportunity?

Katrina Kittle (KK): The gift of uninterrupted time is such a gift to a writer, and that Thurber House residency was just amazing. They offer two residencies a year, so I encourage other writers to check it out and apply. To apply, I had to submit pages from the manuscript I hoped to be working on if I were lucky enough to get chosen. It was a bit nail-biting because my current work-in-progress is a real departure from my other work, and it was in such early stages at the time of applying that I wasn't sure anyone would see the potential in it. Fortunately, they could, and I had four weeks where I could totally immerse myself in the novel-in-progress and didn't have to worry about anything else--no home maintenance, no heading off to the job-that-pays-the-bills, no split focus with any other commitment at all. There's no way to sustain that kind of focus all the time, but knowing it was temporary, I was able to just "live in" the novel and get an amazing amount of writing done. The staff was supportive and fun, and the house is very haunted. The ghosts there made themselves known, but they were friendly and welcoming, not malevolent at all. I'd always wanted to live in a haunted house, so I finally had my chance and loved every minute of it. The house also influenced the work-in-progress, though: there's a ghost from the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic in the story, and I think the Thurber House ghosts highly approved.

LK: You've held some pretty interesting positions: a house cleaner, a veterinary assistant, a children's theatre director, a costumer, and as case management support for the AIDS Resource Center (formerly AIDS Foundation Miami Valley). How have these past lives (if you will) contributed to your writing career? Talk about working at the AIDS foundation? What did you learn? What did you find harrowing?

KK: I find it interesting that I spent most of my life longing for the ability to write full time, and only when I was able to write full time did I realize the seed for every single one of my novels had been planted by an experience in a non-writing-related job I'd had. Julia Cameron has a wonderful quote I adore: "In order to make art, we must first make an artful life, a life rich enough and diverse enough to give us fuel." I've learned there's actually a danger in being privileged enough to sit alone in a room all day -- there's no material, no "fuel," for my stories in that empty room. Or maybe I'm just rationalizing the fact that I have to go out in the world to make a living? But, seriously, I was led to the AIDS Foundation because of losing friends to that disease. First, I was a volunteer, then, over time, I was actually employed by them. I saw such bravery, creativity, and resilience in the people who made up the staff and the client roster, but the coverage of the disease at that time (the early 90's) tended to be harsh and judgmental. My experiences working there -- and trying to reconcile what I heard other people saying about HIV and AIDS with what I saw to be true about HIV and AIDS -- led to my first novel Traveling Light. I know my work with that organization added detail and authenticity to that story. These days, rather than grumbling about having to go to work (other than writing), I try to remind myself: "It's all material. It's all 'fuel.'" That's the real beauty of the writing life to me: we use everything. Anything I see or experience, no matter how random or trivial, might just become a piece of "the story behind the story."

LK: Let's talk about your novels, specifically Reasons to Be Happy, which is about a protagonist that struggles with bulimia. I'm so happy you discuss eating disorders in this book. So many novels focus on mental health such as depression with minimal representation of characters that struggle with eating disorders. Why bulimia? What do readers learn from this story?

KK: All of my stories have begun with a social issue I care deeply about (and because I'm such a sucker for comeback stories, second chance stories, and phoenix stories, those issues tend to be tough ones). I've written about AIDS, addiction, divorce, marriage and same-sex marriage, child abuse, body image and eating disorders, but I don't really choose the topics based on how dark or tough they are. I'm fascinated by human resilience. One of my favorite quotes is from Ernest Hemingway. He said, "The world breaks everyone. And, afterwards, some are strong at the broken places." I just love that. All of my stories are in some way or another about people becoming stronger at their broken places. Because, let's face it, life kicks us all in the teeth at some point or another. Some people don't just survive, but go on to thrive after their struggle. I think every novel I've ever written shares that theme. I'm far more interested in the "stronger at" part of that quote than the "broken" part. I don't choose tough topics to drag readers to dark places. I choose them for the redemption and hope at the recovery and outcome.

Reasons to Be Happy is my first novel for the tween audience and it came from my experiences as a middle school teacher. I grew so disheartened by a particular phenomenon I saw unfold over and over again: bright, bold, curious girls -- strong and confident in their abilities --would hit the wall of self-doubt in sixth or seventh grade. They'd lose all sense of their own unique identity, stop taking any risks, and retreat into approval-seeking behaviors that made them all seem like watered-down clones of each other. Because I taught where the high school was on the same campus, I'd get to see my former students as they grew up and evolved, so I knew that mid-high school, most girls came through this on the other side, regaining their "personhood" and courage. But why did they have to go through it at all? Why were a few exceptional girls strong enough to withstand this challenge while others (who seemed equally exceptional) were not? And why was body image still such a huge part of this identity crisis? I'd studied classical ballet very seriously when I was younger, so I'd seen firsthand some varying levels of eating disorders. Then, when I was teaching middle school and high school, I had the experience of working with therapists and parents when my students fell into such behavior as well. I've long been fascinated with all kinds of addiction, and, really, an eating disorder is a kind of addiction. Like all addictions, the only way to stop it is to truly examine and explore why it began and what the person is getting from it. Until you recognize the source, or the need it fills, treatment will be very ineffective. It's necessary to find something else to fill that same need...but that's not possible until you know what it is. Eating disorders are just that: disorders. It's very complicated psychology. It struck me that I'd rarely seen that aspect of eating disorders dealt with in young adult or tween books, and so I thought that might be my twist on an eating-disorder story, which is what also led to the parallel story with Hannah's father's alcoholism. The other twist, I believe, was setting three fourths of the novel in Ghana in West Africa. I plunk a bulimic from LA down into a culture where she has no idea what's even considered beautiful.

LK: How is the main character in Reasons to Be Happy beautiful? Is finding ourselves considered beautiful, or is it the journey?

KK: What I hope readers take away from the book is that our authentic selves are so much more interesting and beautiful (and less maintenance!) than anything we manufacture to please others. It takes Hannah being completely removed from every cultural thing she knows, for her to be kind to herself and accept her own body. We all spend so much time comparing ourselves, judging ourselves against that teensy percentage of women who are supermodels (airbrushed supermodels, thank you very much) instead of accepting our imperfections and embracing our own unique beauty. Hannah discovers that what she perceived as an imperfection is actually one of her strengths. I personally believe that passion and happiness are the greatest beauty enhancements out there. When someone is doing what they truly love to do, they are more beautiful than someone holding themselves back from doing what they love because they fear disapproval from others.

LK: Talk about "working your ass off to be a full-time writer." What does that mean? Tell me more about this. What sucked? Share your victories.

KK: It's an odd thing, really. When I was a full-time teacher, I worked harder as a writer than I have since. I moved to live four minutes from my school, to cut down my commute and give me more writing time. I rose at five each morning, to put in two hours of writing before I left for school. I was focused and on fire. I dreamed about being able to write full time one day...and I'm thrilled to say I managed to pull that off. Okay, okay, so I only pulled it off for about two years, but I did it, and it felt like a monumental accomplishment. My third novel, The Kindness of Strangers, won the 2006 Great Lakes Book Award for Fiction and did well enough for me to leave my full-timing teaching position. For two full years I lived on book money alone, and during those two years I embarked on my Year as a Gypsy, where I put together my own frugal version of Eat, Pray, Love, living and writing in different places (several months in a tiny town in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut, several months in a loft in Park Slope, Brooklyn). But it's very difficult to live this way. Book money is not money you can count on, and you really only get paid twice a year (and you have no idea how big those checks will be). I realized I valued more security, which is a good thing to learn about yourself. I'm still not full-time anywhere other than my writing office, but these days I do teach creative writing a great deal, from middle school gifted programs, to university classes, and writing conferences, and I have a fantastic part-time job with the Miami Valley Fair Housing Center...which is giving me loads of material for my next novel. But my biggest triumph is that I was able to create the work day that works for me -- I'm able to keep my best, most productive writing time (mornings) for myself and put together days that feed my creativity instead of draining it.

LK: I read you always wanted to be a vampire. Ever consider taking the plunge if that were a reality?

KK: I'm still a lover of vampires, zombies, and all things creepy. I read King's Salem's Lot when I was probably far too young to read such a book and became fascinated by vampires. I even took the screen out of my bedroom window (unbeknownst to my poor parents) in hopes that if a vampire showed up floating outside my window like they did in Salem's Lot, I could invite it inside and get it to make me one, too. Obviously, I hadn't thought this through -- I was simply attracted to the idea of getting to live forever. I knew, even at a very young age, that I would never be able to squeeze into one lifetime all the stuff I hoped to accomplish. I completely failed to consider the whole drinking-blood-only-going-out-at-night-losing-everyone-I-love aspect of this prospect. I think it's safe to say I would not take the plunge if offered today, but I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the idea. And taking the screen out of my window? That did not end well. I did get a fanged visitor, but it was not immortal or undead -- it was a very live possum. I'm not going to spoil anything here because that story is used in Reasons to Be Happy. I'll just say again, "my poor parents."