I grew up in a suburb of Pittsburgh, and my maternal grandparents lived just down the road a bit in Clairton, one of Pittsburgh’s most dynamic steel communities. Like a lot of Pittsburghers, I’ve got a bit of an obsession with steel. In the 1960s and 1970s, I spent a lot of time at their house with the smokestacks of the mills bearing down and barges hauling steel along the Monongahela River. My grandfather and great uncles worked in the steel mills so it was a big part of our family story. When the steel industry collapsed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, so did Pittsburgh’s steel communities. At that point, the storyteller in me jumped up and said, “Ooohh, there’s a story to be told here.”
Thirsty is a fictional town, but is it based on any town in particular or an amalgamation of several places? Does the name Thirsty have a symbolic meaning?
Thirsty the town is loosely based on my grandparents’ steel town, Clairton, Pennsylvania. Of course, I hung out in Clairton in the late 1960s and early 1970s—not in the late 1800s and early 1900s when Thirsty the novel takes place. Obviously I had to do a heck of a lot of research in order to get the details right. Since I wrote the first full draft of Thirsty during graduate school at Columbia College Chicago, I spent a good bit of time at the Harold Washington Library Center on State Street in downtown Chicago. Terrific library.
As for the symbolic meaning of Thirsty, well, you’ll just have to read it and decide for yourself.
A central part of the story of Klara Bozic is the domestic abuse that she faces. What was it that compelled you to write this story?
Because I have a history of domestic violence in my family, I’ve done a good bit of thinking about it over the years, both personally and as a writer.
As I’ve moved through the world, I’ve witnessed how being a victim of domestic violence often is passed from mother to daughter…like pearls or a wedding dress. This cycle of abuse—along with the idea of genetic memory—tweaked my storytelling curiosity early on. In writing Thirsty, I wanted to explore the mother-daughter dynamic, how a young woman gets involved in an abusive relationship in the first place, why some women manage to leave abusive relationships behind, and why others simply cannot. The more I wrote and discovered, the more I realized how tender and complicated these situations are. As I wrote Klara’s story, I kept coming to the question of courage: “What is it? Who has it? Who can get it? What does it look like? And finally, can Klara ever find the courage to leave Drago?”
What has it been like to launch your book in the United States while living in China?
Promoting a debut novel in the U.S. while living halfway around the world in Shanghai, China, is, well, a little nuts. After all, I live in a country that “manages” access to the Internet. I’m blocked from all social media sites—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.—as well as many blogs and lots of writer-related sites. (I’m even blocked from my own blog!)
Thankfully I’m a creative soul and a determined author. And because I’m also the reigning queen of VPNs (Virtual Private Networks), I manage to get to blocked websites on a fairly regular basis and therefore connect quite often with readers and writers.
In late September, I flew home to the U.S. for the launch of Thirsty. (October 1 was the official release date.) And from the time the airplane touched down, I was the (very exhausted, but very happy) marketing maven. I did an author’s feast at the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association convention in Cleveland, a flurry of radio interviews, a webcast interview with the books editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and a bunch more things that have become a blur. I also read and signed books at a number of bookstores in Pittsburgh, Massachusetts, and Maine, went back to my high school alma mater to yak with students in the creative writing classes, and talked to anyone anywhere who looked like they might be a reader. (I was the one in the international terminal at the airport calling, “Hey, hey, you! Yes, you! Do you read? Have you seen my debut novel Thirsty?”)
Regarding your move to China, what has been one of the most exciting things that has happened or that you have learned while living there?
You know, living in China is this wonderful, kooky, frustrating, thrilling, eye-opening experience. When I moved here in 2006, I didn’t know much about Chinese culture and I didn’t speak a word of Mandarin. For a lot of people, that kind of change is overwhelming. For me, it was inspiring. I love being nudged (pushed/shoved) out of my comfort zone, plunked down into a culture about which I know little or nothing, and forced to reexamine who I am and how I define myself in the world.
The good news after almost four years in China?
I’ve got enough material to write about for a lifetime.
Do you have any plans for a second book in the works?
Absolutely. I’ve got two big projects on my plate right now:
a. a memoir about falling in love with an Irishman, marrying him (um, rather quickly), moving to China, and becoming a mom
b. a second novel...which is wildly different than Thirsty
Thank you so much to Kristin for taking time to make this interview possible.
Kristin Bair O’Keeffe’s debut novel Thirsty (Swallow Press, 2009) tells the story of one woman’s unusual journey through an abusive marriage, set against the backdrop of a Pittsburgh steel community at the turn of the twentieth century. Her work has been published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Poets & Writers Magazine, San Diego Family Magazine, The Baltimore Review, The Gettysburg Review, and many other publications. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago and has been teaching writing for almost fifteen years. Kristin lives in Shanghai, China, with her husband and daughter. If you’d like to learn more, visit http://www.thirstythenovel.com/ and http://www.kristinbairokeeffeblog.com/.
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