Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
A Conversation with Kate Hopper

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Kate Hopper is the author of [booklink isbn="1936740125" title="Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers"] and the recently published memoir [booklink isbn="0816689326" title="Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood"]. She has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Minnesota and currently teaches classes at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and online in her Motherhood & Words workshops. Janine Kovac sat down with Kate to discuss her book, her writing workshops, and how to care for orchids. (You can read Janine Kovac’s behind-the-scene story of her interview with Kate here.)

Janine Kovac: Your memoir [booklink isbn="0816689326" title="Ready for Air"] is out, just 15 months after your writing guide Use Your Words was published. But wasn’t [booklink isbn="0816689326" title="Ready for Air"] written first?

Kate Hopper: I did write [booklink isbn="0816689326" title="Ready for Air"] first; it's been a long journey to publication. I began writing it when Stella was five months old, during my year off from the University of Minnesota MFA program following Stella’s birth. When I returned to school in the fall of 2004, it became my thesis, and I was about half finished with the first draft when I graduated from the program in 2005. I took the next two years to finish writing, and then I revised and found an agent. In 2007 and 2008 the book was shopped around for a while and rejected for being too dark, not having a market, etc. This is when I decided to rewrite it from scratch. I had a better sense of what the real story was at that point, and I wanted to write it again with that in mind. So I printed out the whole manuscript, opened a new Word document, and started to write the book again, from the beginning. That process took another two and half years, and it was during this time that [booklink isbn="1936740125" title="Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers"] sold on proposal to Viva Editions. So I paused work on [booklink isbn="0816689326" title="Ready for Air"] again to write [booklink isbn="1936740125" title="Use Your Words"] and then I finished my final revisions on [booklink isbn="0816689326" title="Ready for Air"].

JK: The way you wrote about your husband and the way you wrote about your marriage in [booklink isbn="0816689326" title="Ready for Air"] felt so authentic. You wrote about when you were annoyed with him and when you felt he was being unreasonable without making it seem as if you were tattling on him or betraying a confidence. How did you do that?

KH: Oh, thank you! Writing your spouse can be so tricky. I really tried to be true to who we are, and I tried to make sure I turned a very critical eye on myself. I felt that if I was doing that, I could also write about the other important people in my life — even the hard and frustrating moments in those relationships. Donny is a very private person, but he’s also very open to me writing about our lives. I respect and love him, so I’m careful about not betraying him (or anyone, really) in my writing. With that said, he had veto power if he thought I had misrepresented him. He okayed everything that went into the book that was about him or his family.

JK: When [booklink isbn="0816689326" title="Ready for Air"] went to University of MN Press, it didn’t need any further editing. Isn’t that sort of amazing and unusual? 

KH: Well, when you’re working on a book for as long as I worked on [booklink isbn="0816689326" title="Ready for Air"], you get lots of eyes and feedback. Early drafts were workshopped at the University of Minnesota, and then read by some of my writer friends. Then I rewrote the entire manuscript, and it was during that process that my writing group read it. They were incredibly helpful — it wouldn’t be the same book without their feedback. Then my agent read it and provided feedback and I ended up cutting a few chapters early in the book. So by the time it got to University of MN Press, it really had been read and edited by many people — and written and rewritten.

JK: In [booklink isbn="0816689326" title="Ready for Air"], caring for orchids becomes a metaphor for a mother's patience. Can you extend the metaphor to writing?

KH: The orchids became an important thread in the story in my second major rewrite, and I'm so glad this book didn't go out into the world before I figured out how they worked on a metaphorical level. I love orchids, especially because they always remind me of Mimi, the woman Donny and I lived with after we were married. And the metaphor definitely extends to writing. In fact I've written about them in that context before. Be patient, keep watching and waiting and working, and eventually something brilliant will happen.

JK: In your workshops you provide a safe space to discuss and write about difficult and emotional events. How do you maintain that balance between writing and therapy?

KH: This can be really tricky, and in my early years teaching writing, I had students who really seemed to want to turn the classroom into a therapy session. There is a place for therapy, and writing can be therapeutic for people — I love that about the process — but it’s really important not to let personal stories and the verbal processing of those take over a writing workshop. I always stress at the beginning of class that it’s a writing class, and I encourage us always to bring the discussion back to craft. Now, that’s not to say that discussions aren’t intense — they often are — so I have to be vigilant, always, and figure out how all students can get what they need in terms of craft and writing.

JK: Are you able to find time for your own writing during your workshops?

KH: No; I try to do a blog post or two, but for me writing and teaching take a different kind of energy, and it’s hard for me to mix them in the same week/weekend. When I’m leading a retreat, I’m really focused on the group and meeting the needs of the participants. It’s so rewarding, but it can be exhausting, so I don’t have much left over for my own creative writing until I’m home and have processed the experience.

JK: In 2012, Oakland Children’s Hospital held a nationwide essay contest called “Notes and Words.” Three of 19 finalists were your students. In fact, two of the essays were written at your winter Motherhood & Words retreat. What's your secret?

KH: I was so proud to have three students as finalists for that contest. Their pieces were stunning. I always feel like I've won a prize whenever my students have writing successes. I'm not sure how much credit I can take for it, but as a teacher I really urge my students to go deep, to write directly into their fears. When they're doing that and being vulnerable on the page, what emerges is really powerful. And then they rework and revise and put pressure on their sentences and create art. So it's their hard work getting them there, but I do hope that I create an environment in my classes in which students feel safe enough to write their truth, to go deep, and to discover what they really think and feel. And there is also a sense of community that grows out of my retreats and classes, so if someone knows about a contest, they'll encourage everyone else to also submit. I love that!

JK: Let’s talk about your writing. Do you ever have writer’s block?

KH: I procrastinate sometimes, but I wouldn’t call that writer’s block. For me sometimes the hard part is actually sitting down at my computer to work on a project. But once I’m there and begin typing, something always comes out. It’s not always good, but it’s there, and those first words help me move to the next ones and the ones after those. Once I get into a piece, and start playing with words and getting to that place of discovery, then there is no excuse. I just need to keep typing.

JK: So, do you consult exercises from your book [booklink isbn="1936740125" title="Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers"] when you’re writing?

KH: The exercises from [booklink isbn="1936740125" title="Use Your Words"] are kind of imbedded in my mind, so I incorporate them in my writing, but not in a sitting-down-to-freewrite kind of way. But sometimes I forget to take my own advice, and then I stop and have to ask myself what my teacher-self would tell me. She yells at me for a while and gets me back on track.

JK: Until recently you’ve had to fit your writing into an already full schedule as a mother/teacher/editor/wife-with-a-day-job. What would be your ideal writing and workshopping life?

KH: Well, I’m getting there. Ideally, I’d like to lead four to five retreat/workshops a year and spend the rest of my time writing, editing manuscripts, and teaching online or in-person classes and workshops. Freelancing can be stressful because there isn’t a consistent flow of income, but it feels like the right place to be for me right now.

JK: What are you working on now?

KH: I’m working on two projects right now. I’m collaborating on a memoir proposal, which will hopefully find a home late this fall. I’m really excited about that project, which has to do with autism and running. I’m also diving back into a novel that I started a couple of years ago, but which had been stalled because of my day job (which I ditched this summer). I’m just thrilled to be writing again every day (or five days a week).

JK: So, how does one care for orchids?

KH: It is tricky to get them to bloom again, and it really depends on humidity and water and light. Mine are doing better now that we've started to put them outside for a couple of months each summer. I water them thoroughly once a week in the sink, but I spray them every morning. Or the girls do. They love to get a hold of the spray bottle.

Janine Kovac is an executive committee member for Litquake, San Francisco’s literary festival and the event coordinator for the Write On, Mamas. Her work has appeared in Salon, Raising Happiness, and in Pregnancy & Newborn magazine. She lives in Oakland with her husband, daughter, and twin boys. Janine spends her spare time wondering if it’s really “spare time” or if she’s just forgotten to do something.

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Great conversation Janine. I am glad you highlighted Kate's classes and workshop as well because they truly are special. I can see why she cannot write during those as she makes herself fully available to her students.
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