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  • Joan Schweighardt

Spotlight on Kate Niles

Updated: Dec 30, 2020

Between the years of 1999 and 2005, just before the advent of digital books and books on demand, I had my own indie publishing company. Although the venture was short-lived, I couldn’t be prouder of the work I did or the authors I published. One of my great joys was finding and publishing Kate Niles’s first novel The Basket Maker, which won the ForeWord Magazine Fiction Book of the Year award. It was an honor to work with Kate then, and it’s an honor to introduce her now.

Before you wrote The Basket Maker, you worked as an anthropologist, archeologist, college educator, and park ranger. All those aspects of your personal journey bring The Basket Maker into sharp focus, especially regarding sense of place. Can you talk about the importance of sense of place in the novel.

The Basket Maker was my way of making sense of a traumatic childhood. The basis of the story—of an incestuous father and self-absorbed mother—is my own, but I was fortunate to grow up in very beautiful areas, especially southwest Colorado and the Four Corners region. I honestly think I projected all my love onto landscape, as well as onto Mesa Verde National Park and the Ancestral Puebloan history I found there. These were refuges, and as I grew into healing my trauma, I found that to attach to a rock or a river in Native America was not weird at all, but necessary and grounding. Out of that grew a foundational understanding of place as a character, not just relegated to “setting.” It turns out all Native writing possesses this stance, as well as much of even white (“Anglo” in Southwestern terms) writing from the West. I did my critical thesis on this for my MFA.

Your second novel, The Book of John, is about a man who lacks confidence in the brilliance of his own mind, in part because of his dyslexia. How did you come to create him? And how does he fit into the physical landscape where we find him?

The Book of John was my homage both to Southwest archaeology and to a man I loved deeply within that context but whose insecurities prevented him from fully loving himself. It took me years to understand him; this book was my attempt to write out his story. Just like John, he loved archaeology as much as I did and was adept at what archaeologists call replicating material culture, particularly stone tool production. He made beautiful tools, as well as baskets, etc. But he never believed in himself because he did not possess the easy ability with “mainstream” reading and writing needed for PhD work as it is rendered in our universities.

George is his Native counterpart, just as the Northwest (where John escapes to for a time) is the Southwest’s counterpart. George is very smart too, but wrecked by racism and poverty. The Southwest withers in drought and glories in sunshine; the Northwest drowns in floods (usually; this year sucks) or basks in green. Finally, that line between love and fear, surviving or collapsing, gets explored in terms of the Ancestral Puebloan site John is digging up. That site exists—Google “Cowboy Wash” and you will find it—and is emblematic of a crushing time in the Southwest that mirrors what we are seeing today on a grand scale. How do humans survive this or not? In our own hearts and at the scale of our societies? These questions drive me still.

Since The Basket Maker, you have added to your list of job titles probation officer and psychotherapist. Do these interests inform your latest manuscript, The Last Hanging of Angel Martinez?

In 2007, I quit teaching as an instructor at Fort Lewis College in Durango, because I knew I had another book to write and I kept feeling as if teaching was a kind of place holder that honored the intellectual way too much, at the expense of more holistic versions of ourselves. MFA in hand, I began to consider applying for tenure track positions. And it was just obvious that this was not going to fuel my writing. By then, I had been in therapy for sixteen years for my own healing and fallen in love with the process. It was also very clear to me that was where the writing would keep alive. That is a fundamental question for me: what is in service to the writing? So I went back for my third master’s, in clinical social work.

I took a year off in 2007 to write The Book of John, and then, as I was heading back to school, knew I needed to work. I saw an ad in the paper for a probation officer, part-time, and as I was familiar with the courts through my work with the local sexual assault hotline, and as they said they wanted someone who could write (!!) and had experience with kids, I applied. It was the perfect intro to a social work job. I learned tons.

Finally, this all came together with the murder mystery. My lifelong “escape” reading has been murder mysteries, but over time I came to understand that the genre was in fact all about place (admit it, you don’t get into a series unless it is somewhere cool, like Yorkshire, or New Orleans). Evil has a weird way of being place specific, or at least that is one thing that makes its core “banality” (to quote Hannah Arendt) interesting. And then—the coup de grace—mystery has been a great home for strong female protagonists. So I started dabbling in it, but it really took off after Trump got elected. I was so shocked and pissed off that I knew I needed to really reground in my writing. So every morning I got up, ignored the growing debasement of my country, and created Nina, my protagonist, in beloved Taos, NM.

As a lifelong Southwesterner and a writer with mastery over “place,” how do you think your recent move—from Durango, CO, to Providence, RI, will affect your writing?

Oh my God, this has been such a shock to the system, but one I deliberately set off. For twenty-two years, my husband and I lived in Durango, but we both increasingly felt stuck. Everything was a B or even a B+, but it was not an A. This was also the landscape of my abuse, so it was a refuge but irrevocably tied to something I needed once and for all to let go of. My husband is from New England, and we both wanted a small city that had public transportation and access to a cultural texture we did not have in Durango. As much as I love Durango, like much of the intermountain West it is a haven for escapists, as well as extreme sports nuts. I am proud of its bike racing champions as much as the next gal (check out Sepp Kuss in this year’s Tour de France!), but that just is not sustaining for me. New England has a long tradition of community focus that is really lacking in the West in a lot of ways.

I am worried how it will affect my writing, especially as my agent told me that it is often the second book in a mystery series that sells, not the first, and as little Southwest stories still nab me in ways I have yet to feel nabbed in RI. But Providence is home to the Rhode Island School of Design, and I am scheming that Nina, my artist-cum-probation officer, will get a stipend as a visiting lecturer there, and something will hit the fan tying Taos to the bowels of Providence. I guess ultimately I trust my need to write and my creative muse to find the way.

What are you working on now?

Since the overwhelm of COVID, Trump, climate catastrophe, and my personal uprooting, my writing has been very stop-start. I dabble at a memoir, at the second murder mystery, at poetry, depending on the day. I always maintain a journal.

Talk about your poetry. Do you still write it? Read it?

Poetry taught me craft. I started writing in high school and got second place in a regional competition that gave me a lot of confidence. Later, in my twenties, out in the field doing archaeology, I wrote poetry on the backs of lunch sacks, on little field journals. I still write poetry. I love poetry. It is like a spear to the heart, some kind of Clear Light that often comes out all of a piece.

It is also about timing. I am good at dialogue partly because I really love listening for how people truly talk, their cadence. A professor of mine in my MFA program once said that good dialogue was like writing “little lyric poems” and I totally got that; you have to understand beat and cadence and pace. I will also end a paragraph not just because I have completed a thought in some rational journalistic way, but because that’s where the emotional emphasis, the heartbeat, must have it end. So it informs prose in a very different way. Like being a therapist, it is about a deep listening, a palpation.

Do I read it? Yes. Not in any structured way, but I read it. I also think everything is poetry. So there is a way I listen for it. Even little stuff, which butts into my humor: At an ice cream stand in RI, they brag about “peanut butta” as a flavor. You can get a “lobstah roll.” They literally spell them this way. Love it! It’s street poetry, New England pride in their thick-as-paste accents.

How can we create meaningful fiction that is entertaining and compelling in times such as these?

For me it is a call, as my trauma was, to get back to that Native wisdom that understands if we destroy the Earth we destroy ourselves. The problem is that it is just so big and overwhelming now. I find the stop-start business I mentioned above is about finding ways to bite off digestible pieces. But I have to believe in the phoenix rising from the ashes. That seems to be where I recognize hope. So what is ecological literature, what is the story within that? As I write into another mystery, sometimes Nina stops and just smells sage. Just notices wide spots in the road, or the way the great wide open in the West is a pastiche of loneliness and land abuse and ungodly beauty. I wrote a mad poem the other day about William Barr’s bizarre “Christianity” and how it’s “a poor substitute/for bowing your head at a daisy—/so thankful you weep/in the middle of all that joy.” Keep writing that. That daisy, blooming in fall, in the face of winter. I have no stomach for Blade Runners or other forms of hell on Earth. I just collapse in the face of stories like that.

Kate Niles is the author of two critically acclaimed novels and a book of poetry. She has been published widely in various journals and literary magazines across the country and is the winner of ForeWord Magazine’s Best Fiction of The Year Award as well as a Colorado Council of the Arts Individual Artist’s Fellowship. Last year she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for her short story, “El Gato,” which won the Writers Studio Fiction Award out of Littleton, CO. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Vermont College. After a lifetime in the Southwestern United States, she and her husband uprooted for the Northeast. She currently lives in Providence, RI, with said husband and an aging cat.

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