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A Public Inheritance

For MFA candidate Kendra Atleework, writing memoir means exploring history, landscape, and culture
February 1, 2016

MFA candidate Kendra Atleework

MFA candidate Kendra Atleework
MFA candidate Kendra Atleework

In her final year of the MFA program in Creative Writing, Kendra Atleework just won a $10,000 Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant. Her memoir manuscript has already secured her an agent, Janet Silver of Zachary Shuster Harmsworth. This past fall, her first publication, the essay “Charade,” was included in The Best American Essays 2015. Three other essays were published in the past year. It's a lot of activity from someone who, after college, took a job at a historic San Diego residence because it was supposedly haunted. Eventually she gave up the ghost and moved to Minnesota to write about different sorts of hauntings: a mother’s early death from cancer, growing up in the arid Sierra Nevada mountains, the impact of politics and economies on a landscape.

How did your manuscript project begin? What drew you to the subject matter?

I came to Minnesota without having done much creative writing outside of undergraduate courses. I knew I wanted to write about my home region in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains of California, but I didn’t begin to understand how to narrate the book until I took a 1,400-mile road trip in the summer of 2014 to observe California stricken by drought. That trip allowed me to imagine the manuscript as a story about landscape, culture, and history, told through the narrative of a family.

Writing about my grandmother’s move from Pennsylvania to California and her subsequent adoption of local culture, for example, lets me consider attitudes that are uniquely Californian and uniquely American. Since I’m writing a memoir, I rely on narrative and character and memory and metaphor to talk about the geo-economic and the political. The individual or the family can serve as a microcosm for bigger themes and ideas, as vessels for a public inheritance.

You’ve received two CLA Travel/Research Fellowships and two O’Rourke Fellowships to research the book. Would you describe what this research has entailed thus far?

The fellowships allowed me to be present at crucial moments in an unfolding history. In 2014 I traveled up and down California with a photographer, observing dry reservoirs and fallowed fields during severe drought. Last February, I flew home immediately after a bizarre winter wildfire destroyed a third of the houses in my childhood neighborhood; the ground under the foundations of the burned houses was still warm. I recreate the days after the fire in the first chapter of the manuscript. Each time I visit home, some detail—whether it’s an encounter with a stranger on Main Street, or an epiphany while standing on a ladder sawing off the branches of a cherry tree—becomes unexpectedly essential to the book.

I read history books, letters, and newspaper clippings from the archives of historical societies, and literature about California history and culture. I might read ten books to write a chapter. I do a lot of background research because I need to understand a subject—a person, a specific moment in time—before I can make that subject work within the book. Since I’m not writing a comprehensive account of anything, I leave out most of the information I find. To merit inclusion, a detail can’t just be interesting. It must propel a metaphor or image that highlights what I want to say about my subject, the quality or idea I’m trying to convey.

In your essay "Grazing Patterns" you memorably describe the excessive, "fluorescent" green of the upper Midwest. What about living in Minnesota has necessitated the most adjustment? What have you enjoyed most about living here?

The flatness and the greenness of Minnesota has so far been impossible to get used to. The historian Walter Webb called the West a “semi-desert with a desert heart,” and this applies to much of California. The Eastern Sierra Nevada region gets an average of five inches of rain every year. Even Southern California, where I went to college, is a semi-desert. I miss the panorama of mountains, and the big sky of desert. I miss being able to see the Milky Way. But I couldn’t have written this book without leaving California. I appreciate the infrastructure of the Twin Cities, which makes it easy to spend time outside. I appreciate the literary community, and the state’s support for artists. While I still find it startling, I see a different kind of beauty in all the growth of a Minnesota summer. And I love that in winter, walking around my neighborhood, I feel as though I live inside a snow globe.

Has a particular teacher or class facilitated your learning and/or manuscript?

I’ve been lucky enough to take three classes with Patricia Hampl. When teaching creative writing classes, I find myself echoing her philosophies on writing and living as a writer, as well as her approach to the mechanics of writing literary nonfiction. Patricia Hampl has taught me to fall in love with another writer’s work and to read in a way that informs my own writing—reading not only for story and language but for craft, to observe a technique or a structure I admire and then try it out. She’s also deepened the way I think about the genre of literary nonfiction and has helped me understand the power of narrative.

Dan Philippon, my thesis advisor, can usually help me figure out a problem I’ve been struggling with for months in less than an hour. I believe he’s more articulate in describing my book than I am. He’ll listen to an idea for a chapter that’s just sloshing around in my head and will help me figure out how to translate that in a way that can communicate to a reader.

What have you appreciated most about your Minnesota MFA program experience?

I appreciate my classmates. We take courses in each other’s genres, love many of the same books and authors, read each other’s manuscripts (in some cases over and over), and support one another through professional and personal joys and difficulties. We share a common goal and a common love of language; we recognize each other’s specific strengths as writers and have created a dynamic in which each of us can excel. Mid-May, when we graduate, is going to be bittersweet. I hope most of us stay in Minneapolis. There’s been talk of pitching in for a writer’s commune. . . .